Chinese President Xi Jinping tells Apec leaders they are at a ‘crossroad in history’ as he repeats free-trade plea

  • Chinese president reiterates support for multilateral trade in meeting with other Asia-Pacific leaders
  • Call for ‘open global economy’ repeated a day after US Vice-President Mike Pence defended US tariffs
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 5:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2018, 11:27pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned on Sunday that the world was “at a crossroad in history” as he reiterated his plea for world leaders to support free trade following his exchange of barbs with US Vice-President Mike Pence.

Xi was speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Papua New Guinea a day after the two had delivered keynote speeches that set out their competing visions.

On Saturday Pence applauded US tariffs on Chinese imports and repeated Washington’s claims that China was taking advantage of the US shortly after Xi had denounced “unilateralism and protectionism”.

The contest between the US and China for leadership in the region has raised questions about the Asia-Pacific region’s future development and the Apec forum’s ability to promote economic integration.

Apec summit ends without agreement following US-China clashes

The deep divisions between the two sides meant the summit ended with agreement on a communique, with reports suggesting that they had clashed over America’s demand that calls for a “level playing field” at the World Trade Organisation be included in the document.

Earlier at a closed-door session for Apec leaders on Sunday, Xi once against stressed Beijing’s view that all member countries should continue to advance economic integration and “firmly uphold the rule-based multilateral trading system and say no to protectionism”, according to a transcript published by the official Xinhua news agency.

“We have reached a crossroad in history, when we must have a keen appreciation of the trend of our world and take the pulse of the world economy,” Xi said.

“The road toward a free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific will not be smooth. Yet, we need to remain committed to this goal and move toward it.”

In addition, the Chinese leader called for “an open, inclusive and transparent approach” to various free-trade arrangements.

Xi also said that reforms of the World Trade Organisation should be designed to promote multilateral trading systems instead of “having the organisation overhauled”.

The previous day he had sought support from the other Apec members, promising that they would benefit from China’s opening up and economic growth.

“China is a champion of Asia-Pacific cooperation and has taken concrete steps to promote cooperation on the ground,” Xi said.

Police called on Chinese diplomats as Apec row boils over

Separately, China’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Sunday afternoon rebuking Pence for saying in his speech that poorer countries participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative risked taking on unsustainable debts that compromised their sovereignty.

But ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that no developing country would fall into debt difficulties because of cooperation with China and that cooperating with Beijing could help raise their independent development capabilities.

The Chinese government’s rhetoric about upholding free trade has met increasing scrutiny from the West, especially Washington.

Pence said in his speech that “we have great respect for President Xi and China, but as we all know, China has taken advantage of the United States for many, many years and those days are over”.

Xi did not mention the US or Pence in his Sunday speech, but said differences between countries were normal, adding: “What is important is for us to stay committed to the shared goal of common development … address differences through consultation.”

Pence was representing the US after President Donald Trump decided to skip the Apec summit this year.

Trump’s no-show means his talks with Xi and the G20 summit in Argentina at the end of the month will be the pair’s first face-to-face meeting in over a year.

Since that time the US has initiated a trade war with China in an effort to close the US$375 billion trade deficit between the two sides.

Washington has also amplified its complaints about Chinese trade practices, accusing it of intellectual property theft, unfair competition and forced technology transfers.

The US has already imposed tariffs on US$250 billion of goods and Trump has threatened to extend the tariffs to all Chinese imports – a warning that Pence reiterated on Saturday.