After US President Donald Trump made his debut address to 21 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member nations, one participant in the audience walked out saying he felt like he had just left a US campaign rally.
That’s because the American leader spent much of the half hour bashing his perceived regional rivals and touting American greatness, a theme more suited to Iowa state voters than world leaders at the APEC summit.
“We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides, and that private industry, not government planners, will direct investment,” Trump said in an address to CEOs.
“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. … But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us.”
At that point, a heckler near the front half of the crowd shouted at Trump, challenging his claim that there had been unequal actions among trade partners. He promptly dismissed the retort.
“Funny,” he quipped, in one of the few moments when Trump broke from his official script. “They must have been one of the beneficiaries.”
Such back-and-forth underlined the tension between Trump and his Asia-Pacific counterparts gathered in Vietnam’s coastal city of Da Nang, many of whom met for the first time at the summit.
While Trump may not have fought in the Vietnam War here 50 years ago, the American leader clearly sees another kind of conflict under way, an economic one.
Trump was the only leader who came to Da Nang and dedicated a substantial portion of his public remarks to explaining how his country had been a victim of trade.
While he complained about what’s going wrong for the US, many of the other assembled officials focused on the sunny side of APEC’s free trade-promoting bloc.
“It is the leading cooperation mechanism to strengthen economic linkages, especially in terms of trade liberalization,” said the APEC 2017 Senior Officials chair Bui Thanh Son, who is also the Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam. “This has brought about positive outcomes for the member economies.”
Trump reserved a special spot in his criticisms for China. While much of the reaction to the APEC summit has contrasted America’s bilateral against China’s multilateral approach, it was also notable how Trump and Xi Jinping, China’s president, treated one another.
“I recently had an excellent trip to China, where I spoke openly and directly with President Xi about China’s unfair trade practices and the enormous trade deficits they have produced with the United States,” Trump said. “The current trade imbalance is not acceptable.”
Minutes later, Xi walked on stage and stood in the very spot that Trump had just occupied. But Xi did not respond in kind – in fact, he did not mention the United States at all.
If China’s supreme leader ever had reason to have confidence in himself and his country, rather than worry about US power, it would be now after being confirmed for another term as China’s Communist Party chief. Instead of grievances, Xi’s speech struck more of an upbeat, if not philosophical, tone.
“An ancient Chinese philosopher once observed, ‘We should focus our mind on the future, not the past,’” he said, adding: “Let us take solid steps to promote cooperation and usher in an even brighter future for the Asia-Pacific.”
The contrast between rivals’ feel-good lines and Trump’s tough talk are what makes him so appealing to his supporters, even if he doesn’t follow through on his rhetorical threats or goes on to reverse himself within hours.
Safe to say, Trump’s punitive trade warnings did not scare many at the APEC summit. But they will have gone over well with the US constituents who represent his protectionist base and view themselves as trade victims of the countries Trump criticized.
“We can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses, and we will not tolerate them. Despite years of broken promises, we were told that someday soon everyone would behave fairly and responsibly,” Trump said. “People in America and throughout the Indo-Pacific region have waited for that day to come — but it never has.”