Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump laid down starkly contrasting visions for Asia’s future Friday, with Xi pledging a new era of globalization propelled by his nation’s economic might as Trump offered America’s largess only to those who play by his rules.
In back-to-back speeches to business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, Xi and Trump in effect competed for the region’s economic affections, with divergent blueprints of what the 21st Century economy should look like.
Speaking moments after Trump told the same audience the U.S. would not seek multilateral trade deals and wanted to make the system fairer for Americans, Xi painted a picture of a global order that would bring collective benefits, saying, “let more countries ride the fast train of Chinese development.”
The speeches represent contrasting pitches for leadership in a region suspicious of China’s intentions and unsure about America’s staying power. Xi’s speech glossed over regional unease over China’s rising clout while pledging free trade and stability. Trump dwelled on regional flash points while criticizing the World Trade Organization and offering trade on America’s terms.
Trump’s speech cataloged the ills of globalization, saying too many countries had flouted the rules for years with impunity, harming American workers and U.S. companies. “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump said.
Xi, on the other hand, said “the concept of globalization should pay more attention to openness and tolerance, while the direction should focus on balance.” China will “continue to build an open economy and work hard to achieve mutual benefits,” he added. “Opening up will bring progress and those who close down will inevitably lag behind.”
The comments signal a continuation of Xi’s drive to cast himself as a champion of global free trade as the Trump administration challenges China’s barriers to access for foreign companies. Earlier this year, Xi launched his push-back against protectionism in a speech to billionaires and government officials gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
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Still, while Xi has spoken strongly in support of the global trading order this year there’s been little tangible evidence of Beijing following through.
In a January survey of 462 U.S. companies by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, more than 60 percent expressed little or no confidence that China would open its markets in the next three years. China still ranks 59th out of 62 countries evaluated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of openness to foreign direct investment.
In a major speech aimed at domestic audiences at China’s 19th Party Congress in October, Xi’s language on reform stuck closely to previous pledges while promising to make sure that China’s Communist Party “leads everything.”
Trump too laid out a path for how other countries could boost their economy: He offered economic partnerships with the U.S. but only through bilateral trade pacts, and he pledged never to again join a multilateral deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have bound the U.S. to 11 countries as a bulwark against China.
“I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific country that wants to be our partner and will abide by the principle of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump said.
Nations already have doubts about the U.S. commitment under Trump. After Asian countries tied up with America on TPP, Trump tore up the deal -- leaving them wondering if Trump was turning his back on the region as he pursued an “America First” agenda.
When the U.S. enters into a trade relationship, Trump said, “we will from now on expect that our partners will faithfully follow the rules, just as we do. We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides and that private industry, and not government planners, will direct investment. For too long and in too many places, the opposite has happened.”
Trump also said those who play by the rules will be the U.S’s closest economic partners and that the U.S. is seeking friendly ties in the region. “We don’t dream of domination,” Trump said. “We will not make decisions for the purposes of power or patronage.”
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“I doubt Trump will have many takers for bilateral deals, particularly given that he defines fair trade as the absence of a deficit,” said David Skilling, director of Singapore-based advisory firm Landfall Strategy Group. “Apart from Singapore, most Asian economies run sizable trade surpluses with the U.S.,” he said.
“It is not a very well thought-out strategy. A transactional, zero-sum ‘America First’ approach won’t do much to advance U.S. interests in the region,” he said.
Xi’s remarks came after he pledged during a state visit to China by Trump to further open his economy to foreign investors. Following the visit, China announced a plan to open its financial sector by removing ownership limits on its banks and asset-management companies.
Xi vowed to continue opening the Chinese economy to foreign players and to undertake structural reforms, echoing remarks he delivered in Beijing on Thursday. “In the next fifteen years, China wants to set up a new platform for the cooperation of all parties in entering the Chinese market,” Xi said.
Xi called on the region to make “continuous progress” toward what would be known as the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific and to quickly complete negotiations on a 16-nation Asia trade pact known as the RCEP.
During Trump’s visit to Beijing on Thursday, Xi didn’t respond directly to Trump’s charges of unfair trade practices, but said he was committed to opening up China’s economy. He cited new deals with U.S. companies as “great examples” of the potential “win-win nature” of ties.
Bloomberg’s Jason Koutsoukis contributed.