Trump Pitches ‘America First’ Trade Policy at Asia-Pacific Gathering

13-Nov-2017 Intellasia | Nytimes | 6:00 AM Print This Post

President Trump on Friday vowed to protect American interests against foreign exploitation, preaching a starkly unilateralist approach to a group of leaders who once pinned their economic hopes on a regional trade pact led by the United States.

“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump told business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

But taking the stage at the same meeting immediately after Trump, President Xi Jinping of China delivered a sharply contrasting message, championing more robust engagement with the world. Xi used his own speech to make a spirited defense of globalisation, saying relations among countries should be “more open, more inclusive, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial to all.”

Trump’s remarks were strikingly hostile for an audience that included leaders who had supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping 12-nation accord that was to be led by the United States, from which Trump withdrew immediately after taking office.

And it indicated the degree to which, under Trump, the United States – once a dominant voice guiding discussions about trade at gatherings such as Apec – has ceded that role. Even as he was railing against multilateral approaches, the remaining 11 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership were negotiating intensively to seal the agreement – without the United States. Under the terms being discussed, the United States could re-enter the pact in the future.

Even without the United States, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be the largest trade agreement in history. Under the partnership, members would enjoy tariff-free trade with each other, with companies in the member countries having faster and better access to other markets than their American rivals.

Promising to pursue “mutually beneficial commerce” through bilateral trade agreements, Trump roundly condemned the kind of multilateral accords his predecessors had pursued. His talk echoed his statements in China earlier this week that blamed weak American leadership for trade imbalances that he said had stripped jobs, factories and entire industries from the United States.

“What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible,” Trump said.

He also spoke witheringly about an approach he said had led the United States to lower its own trade barriers, only to have other countries refuse to do so, and he accused the World Trade Organisation of treating the United States unfairly.

Many of the president’s toughest lines – his vow to fight the “audacious theft” of intellectual property from American companies and the forced transfer of technology to foreign firms – were aimed at China.

But Trump avoided criticising Xi personally. And he repeated his contention that he did not blame China, or any other country, for taking advantage of what he called weak American trade laws.

“If their representatives are able to get away with it, they are just doing their jobs,” the president said. “I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.”

White House officials had framed Trump’s speech as a chance to articulate the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, which the Trump administration has adopted as its answer to former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. First proposed by the Japanese, it envisions the United States strengthening ties with three other democracies in the region – Australia, India and Japan – in part to counter a rising China. But the president offered few details about that approach.

He spoke of the need for freedom of navigation – a reference to the South China Sea, which Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries complain Beijing is turning into a private waterway. But the president stopped short of calling out China by name.

He also did not fault China or his host, Vietnam, for their checkered human rights records, even as he offered a general endorsement of the rule of law and individual rights.

As in his speech to the United Nations in September, Trump emphasized the idea of sovereignty, a concept that is often seen as being at odds with global cooperation and that is sometimes used by countries to fend off interference by outside powers.

He closed the speech with an inward-looking paean to the virtues of home, declaring, “In all of the world, there is no place like home,” adding that nations should “protect your home, defend your home, and love your home today and for all time.”

Xi, in contrast, argued for pursuing the kinds of global initiatives that Trump had shunned. The Chinese leader praised the Paris climate accord, called globalisation an “irreversible historical trend” and said China would continue to pursue a free trade area in the Asia-Pacific region.

American and Russian officials had been working to arrange a meeting between President Vladimir V. Putin and Trump on the sidelines of the meeting, in part to ask for Moscow’s assistance in countering the threat from North Korea. But as Trump arrived in Danang, the White House announced that he would not hold formal talks with Putin.

Officials cited scheduling issues as the reason the two leaders would not meet. But on Thursday, Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, had said that a conversation between Trump and Putin was “still under consideration,” and that a final decision would hinge on whether there was “sufficient substance” to warrant face-to-face talks.

Trump’s last encounter with Putin – on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany – posed political challenges for the White House, which faced questions about whether and how sharply Trump would rebuke his Russian counterpart for meddling in the 2016 elections.

Trump was later criticised for not having pressed Putin more strongly in an hourslong meeting on the election interference, and for revelations that the two had a second, undisclosed discussion at a leaders’ dinner that night. Diplomats described being stunned to see the two presidents chatting intimately with only a Kremlin interpreter present.

The optics of a meeting this week would have been particularly tricky, given new revelations about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, brought to light by the investigations into Moscow’s efforts to sway the American election in Trump’s favour.

The two presidents did end up shaking hands and exchanging greetings before posing for a photograph at the Apec gala dinner Friday evening.

Still, the change in plans appeared to have left the Kremlin exasperated. Asked about the absence of a meeting, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told a Russian TV reporter: “Ask the Americans. We are not speaking on this matter at all.”

Lavrov noted that Trump himself had said last week that he would most likely meet with Putin during his trip to Asia. But, Lavrov added, “I don’t know what his bureaucrats are saying.”


Category: FinanceAsia

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