Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour
Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour

Keynote speeches Thursday by US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were a study in contrasts at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit in Da Nang.

The American president, who spoke first, confidently gave his remarks, which were personal and direct. In contrast, Xi’s speech sounded like a dry academic lecture.

Before he began to address the business leaders gathered at the Ariyana Da Nang exhibition center, Trump said he “want[ed] to address all those affected by Typhoon Damrey.” He said the American people “are united with the Vietnamese people suffering in the aftermath of this terrible storm.”

His words of support and solidarity were coupled with the announcement that the US has offered over $1 million in emergency assistance to respond to the typhoon’s destruction and to help reduce the risk of future disasters.

In contrast, in his speech, China’s president neither mentioned the devastating typhoon nor offered support, even though the storm severely hit the coastal city Da Nang and other central provinces and killed more than 100 people just days earlier.

Trump more favored than Xi with Vietnamese

This could be why the Vietnamese public reacted much more positively to Trump’s speech than Xi’s. For instance, 12 hours after the BBC Vietnamese shared it on its Facebook page, Trump’s address had 349,000 views, 17,000 likes (of those 3.7 thousand loves), 4.5 thousand shares and 4.5 thousand comments (with most of them very positive). In contrast, Xi’s speech had only 90,000 views, 3,000 likes (of those only 171 loves), 213 shares and 1.8 thousand comments (with the majority quite negative).

Some may argue that Trump’s was primarily an “America first” speech. But the first part focused mainly on other regional countries.

Trump singled out some key political and economic achievements of each country cited, prompting applause from the audience. He praised Vietnam’s thousand-year struggle for statehood; Indonesia and India for becoming the world’s third and first largest democracy, respectively, and South Koreans for transforming their war-ravaged country into one of the wealthiest democracies on the planet.

Xi, in contrast, mentioned no country by name. His address was mainly about China and its policies and achievements.

Xi, in contrast, mentioned no country by name. His address was mainly about China and its policies and achievements.

Moreover, while the Chinese leader talked at length about economic issues, such as globalization and economic development as if there were nothing else that interested China, Trump talked about other pressing problems, such as North Korea’s nuclear threat and terrorism.

He also emphasized the “respect for the rule of law, individual rights, and freedom of navigation and overflight, including open shipping lanes.” He was applauded for highlighting these principles that, as he underlined, “create stability and build trust, security, and prosperity among like-minded nations.”

On trade (the focus of both leaders’ speeches), Trump called for “fair and reciprocal trade … on a basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit,” while Xi preached that trade needs to be “more open, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial to all.”

Although it is difficult for regional countries to accept, there is truth in Trump’s claim that trade needs to be more equitable. US trade with many regional countries, notably China, is hugely unequal. In 2016, its trade deficit with China was US$347 billion.

In fact, while almost all regional countries enjoy a huge trade surplus with the world’s biggest economy, they suffer substantial trade deficits with China. For example, in 2016, Vietnam had a US$29.4-billion trade surplus in goods with the US, while it ran a $28-billion deficit with its giant neighbor.

From an American — and even neutral — perspective, Trump is right to assert that for many years, the US “systematically opened [its] economy with few conditions,” while “other countries didn’t open their markets to [the US].” For instance, for all Xi’s rhetoric, his communist country has yet to become a fully free economy. Beijing has only recently announced that it will open some of its key sectors, strongly controlled by state-owned enterprises, such as finance and banking.

Xi’s trade policy has multilateral focus

Another striking difference is that while Trump advocates for bilateral agreements, Xi supports multilateral ones. This is probably the most crucial aspect that makes regional countries more receptive to Xi’s China than to Trump’s America. Indeed, the Chinese leader was applauded when he talked about multilateralism as a cornerstone of the region’s growth.

For many regional countries, especially smaller and poorer ones, they prefer multilateral arrangements because these give them more leverage in dealing with powerful states. Such huge agreements also strongly foster international integration, trade, and investment liberalization, all of which is beneficial to them.

If the Trump administration stubbornly pursues an “America first” trade policy primarily based on bilateral deals and abandons the multilateral trading regimes that Washington has championed for decades, the US will suffer — economically and geopolitically.

This stance will push other regional countries closer to Beijing and be more willing to join China-led initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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