Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping embraced “economic globalism,” calling it an “irreversible historical trend.”
Xi praised globalism for having “contributed significantly to global growth.” Meanwhile. President Donald Trump denounced unfair trade practices and vowed the United States will not be “taken advantage of anymore.”
“In pursuing economic globalization, we should make it more open, more inclusive, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial to all,” said Xi in his APEC address.
In another passage, Xi called for an “open economy that benefits all,” advising that “openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind.”
“China will not slow its steps in opening up itself. We will work together with other countries to create new drivers of common development through the launching of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative,” said Xi. “We will adopt policies to promote high standards of liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment.”
CNBC praises Xi for emphasizing China’s “environmental goals” and “stepping up China’s global rhetorical leadership on that front since Trump abandoned the Paris climate accord earlier this year.”
That is a striking testament to how adroitly China’s leaders play Western media and take advantage of its obsessions. Anyone who thinks China will cripple its economic ambitions in the manner envisioned by the Paris climate accords is frankly delusional. Chinese leaders know they can easily afford rhetorical flourishes in the service of global arrangements that demand little of them for decades to come. There is no domestic constituency in China that can hold Xi or his handpicked successor accountable for living up to whatever he promises in global forums.
Xi had quite a bit to say about China’s economic agenda during the marathon three-hour speech he gave upon assuming near-dictatorial powers at the recent Communist Party congress. The speech included some uplifting ideas about China becoming a benevolent global leader, but absolutely none of it indicated he was prepared to sacrifice any of China’s interests to please international summit meetings.
That is also true of Xi’s praise for fair and open global economic systems. It only takes a few moments to pull up his APEC speech from last year’s meeting in Peru and find him saying exactly the same things about building an “open and integrated economy” and gushing about how “economic globalization is in keeping with the law of economics and delivers benefits to all.” Let us grant Xi all due credit for rhetorical consistency, but let us also not pretend he just delivered a historic speech brimming with new ideas.
What China does is far more important than what its authoritarian leader says in the latest iteration of decade-old talking points. What China does is make deals that benefit China, generally breaking whatever rules it finds inconvenient along the way. Saying nice things about globalism at summit meetings is easy. It is not as if the Western media sphere makes it tough for Chinese speechwriters to figure out what they want to hear.
The most encouraging signs of actual change to emerge from President Donald Trump’s trip to China so far are the huge volume of trade deals announced on Thursday, and Friday’s announcement from Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao that China will begin increasing foreign access to its enormous financial services market. Both of these developments are direct results of the Trump administration’s unique blend of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, public pugnacity, and fiery eruptions on social media. Zhu’s announcement came only a day after Trump called for the very access China delivered.
The results to date are less than one might have imagined Trump wanted by listening to his past accusations of Chinese market distortion, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft, but it is also better than nothing and more than what China was inclined to give on its own – or else would have been given during the Obama administration when Xi was giving those nearly identical speeches rhapsodizing about globalization and transparency.
President Trump also spoke at APEC in Vietnam, and while his speech has been portrayed as a sharp nativist contrast with Xi’s soaring globalist poetry, CNBC notes that Trump “similarly called for economic openness.” The difference is that Trump “struck a harsh tone against countries he deemed guilty of ‘chronic trade abuses.’”
“When the United States enters into a trading relationship with other countries or other peoples, we will, from now on, expect that our partners will faithfully follow the rules, just like we do. We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides and that private industry, not government planners, will direct investment,” said Trump, after praising the achievements made possible by international trade in places like Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, and India at great length.
“Unfortunately, for too long and in too many places, the opposite has happened. For many years, the United States systematically opened our economy with few conditions. We lowered or ended tariffs, reduced trade barriers, and allowed foreign goods to flow freely into our country. But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us,” he charged.
He then made allusions to unnamed countries “embraced by the World Trade Organization, even if they did not abide by its stated principles.” He named China specifically later in his speech, with a combination of unflinching accusations over its past behavior and hope for a better future relationship.
“We can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses, and we will not tolerate them,” Trump declared. “Despite years of broken promises, we were told that someday soon everyone would behave fairly and responsibly. People in America and throughout the Indo-Pacific region have waited for that day to come. But it never has, and that is why I am here today: to speak frankly about our challenges and work toward a brighter future for all of us.”
“From this day forward, we will compete on a fair and equal basis. We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore. 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,” Trump announced.
It is strange to see so many condemning Trump for failing to embrace the possibilities of global trade when he did exactly that, coupled with warnings that the United States will no longer allow itself to be taken advantage of. Even if China is truly experiencing a change of heart, it reached its current position of strength by doing the things Trump accused it of.
Critics also seem to be missing a point picked up by CNBC’s analysis: Trump was not just complaining about how China has treated the United States. He was issuing a warning to Asian nations tempted to choose China over the U.S. as a trading partner, reminding them how readily China violates or subverts rules that interfere with its aggressive national interests.
If “globalism” requires America to disadvantage itself because we have had it so good for so long, make disproportionate sacrifices to international programs to demonstrate “leadership,” and tolerate abuses no other nation would endure, then globalism is what needs to change, not America.
It is a false choice to say that crude isolationism is the only alternative and bad strategy to let it be known that no one has to work very hard to win or keep America’s business. If these are truly the last days of American hyperpower status, it would be malpractice for our leaders not to use it while they still have it, just as China’s leaders are eagerly planning how to use it once they get it.