President Xi Jinping pledged that China wouldn’t engage in decoupling, in an address to Asia-Pacific leaders in Kuala Lumpur just days after the region inaugurated the world’s largest free-trade agreement.
Xi’s speech during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits Thursday came as he — and the world — await clues on how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will approach the region. The White House declined to say Wednesday whether President Donald Trump plans to address the gathering in Malaysia, held virtually this year because of the pandemic.
"We will not reverse course or run against the historical trend by ‘decoupling’ or forming a small circle to keep others out,” Xi said by video. "Opening up to the outside world is a basic national policy, and it will not waver at any time.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after Xi that a U.S. government led by Biden was more likely to adopt a multilateral approach to trade that was supportive of existing international institutions and forums. Lee, whose city-state is dependent on trade as well as U.S. security support, took a swipe Trump’s at "America First” economic policies.
"They have not been supportive of trade as a win-win proposition,” Lee said. "The attitude of the Trump administration is that this is a win-lose proposition: ‘If I have a trade surplus with you, that is good for me. If I have a trade deficit with you, that is bad for me.’ Trade is not like that.”
Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia, Yoshihide Suga of Japan and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand were among those expected to speak. Trump left National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to represent the U.S. at a separate gathering of Southeast Asian nations last week. Xi and Vice President Mike Pence traded sharp barbs in back-to-back speeches at APEC meetings two years ago, a confrontation that prevented the forum from issuing a joint statement for the first time.
In an appeal that touched on several themes central to his own domestic agenda, Xi called on business leaders in the Asia-Pacific to step up during challenging times and show "broader vision, greater resilience and stronger entrepreneurship.” He urged them make the region a "pacesetter for innovation” and to "actively fulfilll” their social responsibilities.
Asia-Pacific nations including China, Japan and South Korea signed the world’s largest regional free-trade agreement over the weekend, encompassing almost a third of the world’s economic output. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, almost a decade in the making, has raised questions over whether the U.S. would move under Biden to counter China’s growing regional influence, especially as Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017.
Last year’s APEC summit in Chile, at which Trump had expected to sign a preliminary trade accord with China, was canceled as host city Santiago struggled with street protests. That puts greater onus on reaching a Leaders’ Declaration this year — a nonbinding statement covering topics such as urbanization, sustainable tourism and natural disasters.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the event’s host, told APEC gatherings Thursday that the "most important priority” was to "reaffirm our support and commitment for the rules-based multilateral trading system.”
"This is essential for our businesses,” Muhyiddin said in a speech, "as market stability and productivity are the central pillars which ensure that trade investment continue to flow even during times of crisis.”
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