has abruptly ended the diplomatic streak he displayed on his 12-day tour of Asia by launching a tirade against “violations, cheating or economic aggression” in the region, just hours after heaping lavish praise on China.
Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Friday, the US president’s words came across as a fierce telling off. The speech was clearly, sometimes explicitly, focused on China and other countries he blamed for predatory economic policies, accusing them of having “stripped” jobs, factories and industries out of the United States.
“We can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses and we will not tolerate them,” he said, with audio speakers in the large hall crackling as Trump raised his voice at times.
“Despite years of broken promises, we were told that someday soon everybody would behave fairly and responsibly. People in America and throughout the Indo-Pacific region have awaited that day to come but it never has and that is why I am here today,” he said.
He addressed a largely mute and visibly stunned audience that included ministers from countries he accused of not “playing by the rules” as the US opened its economy with few conditions. “But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us,” he said.
The US leader then went off-script to confront a man who was speaking audibly during the address and suggested he may be from a country that was “cheating America”.
“Funny, they must be from one of the beneficiaries,” Trump said, laughing. “What country to do you come from, sir?” he added rhetorically.
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Just a day before, Trump had trodden relatively lightly in Beijing, accusing China of “taking advantage” of the US on trade but adding that he did not blame Beijing for having done so.
In Vietnam, hours after leaving Beijing, he was far less restrained. “The current trade imbalance is not acceptable,” he said.
“The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression. Those days are over. We will no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property,” he added.
Previous US administrations had not done anything about the trade deficit, he said. “They did not. But I will. 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 any more,” he added. “I am always going to put America first.”
In another dig at China, Trump hinted to other Asian nations that they were not beholden to Beijing or circling its orbit. Indo-Pacific countries represented a “beautiful constellation of nations, each a bright star, satellites to none”, he said.
The speech was markedly different from the reserved tone of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who spoke directly after Trump, although to much louder applause and cheers from the audience. Trump had spoken into one microphone, but organisers added three more to the podium before Xi took the stage.
Xi did not directly respond to Trump’s challenge on trade but sought to paint himself as a champion of economic openness, globalisation and the fight against climate change, in contrast to the isolationist US president.
He said: “Openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind … The road ahead will not be smooth but we will not give up on our dream.”
Unsurprisingly, panellists on China’s state-run broadcaster CGTN favoured Xi’s address.
Einar Tangen, an American commentator known for his pro-Beijing analysis, told the party-run channel the two Apec speeches represented “a historic moment”.
“You have two leaders laying out starkly different views: one threats, the other talking about what the opportunities are. It was ‘we together’ versus ‘I alone’,” Tangen said.
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“Literally, this is a gamechanging moment because countries are now going to have to decide based on those speeches which direction they think their countries want to go. And if you listen to the applause [from the Apec audience] I think it is very clear that they are favouring the positive vision that Xi is laying out versus the very stark vision that Donald Trump was trying to sell.”
Trump’s desire to move away from regional free trade agreements – he prefers to make his own bilateral deals – has been in stark contrast to the words of other leaders at the Apec conference, which will continue on Saturday.
Many delegates had also hoped that meetings in Da Nang would help resuscitate a moribund Trans-Pacific Partnership. The multinational deal, promoted by Barack Obama as a way to avoid Chinese dominance in Asia, was aimed to eliminate tariffs and trade barriers across a large bloc of nations. But in one of his first acts of office, Trump withdrew from the act.
The annual Apec forum is based on opening markets away from the type of protectionism espoused by the US leader.
In contrast to Trump, who said the US would no longer “enter into large agreements that tie our hands”, Xi told Apec to “support the multilateral trading regime”.
However, Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, rejected Xi’s attempts to portray himself as a standard bearer for an open global economy or other major global causes.
“Just because President Trump maybe is making America less great, that does not de facto make China great. Xi Jinping has to earn greatness and greatness comes from responsibility and in point of fact we have not seen Xi Jinping step up to lead globally,” she said in a recent interview.
“The US might not be leading. But China is also not leading.”