/ AFP, PORT MORESBY
China and the US yesterday crossed swords ahead of an APEC summit, dueling over protectionism, trade tariffs and “checkbook diplomacy” as they laid out sharply contrasting visions for the Pacific Rim region.
In combative back-to-back speeches at a business forum held on a cruise ship moored in Port Moresby, Chinese President Xi Jinping （習近平） and US Vice President Mike Pence pulled few punches.
The feisty exchanges laid the groundwork for what could be a fiery encounter between Xi and US President Donald Trump at next month’s G20 summit in Argentina.
Xi lashed out at “America First” trade protectionism and said that global trade rules should not be applied “with double standards or selfish agendas” — a thinly veiled swipe at Washington.
Xi urged the world to “say no to protectionism and unilateralism,” saying it is a “short-sighted approach” that is “doomed to failure.”
Pence vowed that US tariffs would remain in place unless Beijing “changes its ways.”
“We’ve put tariffs on US$250 billion in Chinese goods and that number could more than double,” he told CEOs from around the region.
Pence also announced that the US would join forces with Australia in the development of a new naval base.
The APEC summit has developed into a tussle for influence between an increasingly assertive China and a more withdrawn US.
This appeared to be borne out by the first “family photo” of leaders, which featured Xi front and center while Pence was absent.
In his speech, Pence criticized Chinese largesse in strong terms, mocking its Belt and Road Initiative that sees China offering loans to poorer countries in the region to improve infrastructure.
He urged Pacific nations to embrace the US, which does not offer a “constricting belt or a one-way road.”
The terms of China’s loans are “opaque at best” and “too often, they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt,” he added.
“Do not accept foreign debt that could compromise your sovereignty,” he said. “We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt... We don’t coerce, corrupt or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly and fairly.”
As if pre-empting the criticism, Xi defended the plan amid attacks it is akin to “checkbook diplomacy.”
He denied there was a “hidden geopolitical agenda ... nor is it a trap, as some people have labeled it.”
Xi also said that no one would gain from heightened tensions between the US and his emerging superpower.
“History has shown that confrontation — whether in the form of a cold war, hot war or trade war — will produce no winners,” he said.
Pence also said that Washington wanted a “better relationship” with Beijing — if it respects its neighbors’ sovereignty, embraces “free, fair and reciprocal trade” and improves its human rights record.
Officially, the leaders are to discuss improving regional economic cooperation under the theme of “embracing the digital future,” but the speeches set the scene for a tense gathering.
Representative to APEC Morris Chang, back row fourth left, and other attendees pose for a group photograph during the APEC summit gala dinner in Port Moresby yesterday. Photo: EPA