President Xi Jinping lauded China as the pivot point for global free trade, vowing to keep the second-largest economy open for business and warning against protectionism as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic.
Buoyed by the signing of the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Xi said the Asia-Pacific is the “forerunner driving global growth” in a world hit by “multiple challenges.”
RCEP, which excludes the US, is viewed as a major coup for China and further evidence that Beijing is setting the agenda for global commerce as Washington retreats.
Xi vowed “openess” to trade and that China would not seek “decoupling” of the Chinese and US economies – a term that refers to a separation, rather than integration during his speech at the virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, a week after the signing of RCEP, which brings together 21 Pacific Rim countries, accounting for about 60% of global GDP.
In a speech that veered into triumphalism over China’s economic “resilience and vitality” in bouncing back from the virus, which first emerged in the central city of Wuhan, Xi warned countries who insist on trade barriers would suffer self-inflicted wounds.
“Openness enables a country to move forward while seclusion holds it back,” he said.
“China will actively cooperate with all countries, regions and enterprises that want to do so. We will continue to hold high the banner of openness and co-operation.”
But Xi’s rhetoric may raise eyebrows in capitals where China has either restricted trade or used its giant economy as a bargaining chip in wider geopolitical disputes.
Australian exports of beef, wine and barley to China – their biggest market – have been restricted, as a diplomatic rumble over the origins of the pandemic as well as accusations of espionage hammer relations.
It’s unclear whether President-elect Joe Biden would roll back tariffs, but analysts have said the US will likely continue to take a tough stance on Beijing under the new administration.
But some at the APEC forum were optimistic the incoming US president would engage more with international groupings.
“I think that (a Biden administration) will be more supportive of the WTO (World Trade Organization), and of APEC,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
“I hope that there will be a more constructive approach – one where countries work together, rather than against one another.”
The US turned away from multilateral bodies during Trump’s tenure as he pushed his “America First” agenda, while APEC gatherings were overshadowed by US-China trade tensions.