The US and China have conflicting worldviews. Image: iStock
An academic has told students not to speak Chinese. Photo: iStock

The opposing worldviews of China and America were, once again, on full display at the recently completed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, with one calling for a “Mankind First” approach to international affairs while the other pursues its “America First” doctrine.

This failure to find common ground was, at least in theory, a key reason why the annual gathering of the 21 Pacific Rim members of the APEC grouping, which accounts for 60% of the global economy, ended in disarray on Sunday.

Addressing the APEC CEO summit on November 16, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned: “Mankind has once again reached a crossroads” and reminded business and political leaders from the region that “the future of mankind hinges on the choice we make.”

In recalling “[the hard lessons] mankind has learned,” including World War II, which “plunged mankind into the abyss of calamity in the last century,” Xi urged not just the APEC members but also the international community at large to “steer the right course for global economic development” and “find an effective way of conducting global governance.”

He then proposed five key elements that constitute such a “right course” and “effective way” and first and foremost among these is “openness and cooperation.”

To demonstrate why other countries should pursue openness rather than seclusion, he cited “the great journey of reform and opening-up” that his communist-run country “has embarked on” over the past 40 years, during which the Chinese people have not only “blazed a new trail and made solid progress” but also “embraced the world with open arms.”

In fact, in painting China as a benign and altruistic nation that always deeply cares about humanity, Xi said, over the past four decades, the Chinese people have pursued their development not just to make their “lives better” for themselves but also “to achieve development for all [mankind].”

Peaceful development

He added, “China has stayed on the path of peaceful development, … actively supported other developing countries in their development … implemented responsible macroeconomic policies and contributed a significant share of global growth. By so doing, China has contributed its vision and input to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

To concretely illustrate his country’s steadfast commitment to openness and, especially, its benevolent contribution to mankind, Xi mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which he announced five years ago. In his view, “The BRI is a major and transparent initiative with which China shares opportunities and pursues common development with the rest of the world.”

With such a conviction, Xi promised, “China will take an even more responsible approach [and] be even more open and inclusive. By doing so, … China will make greater contributions to the common prosperity of the world.”

However, when he addressed the same audience shortly after the Chinese leader, US Vice President Mike Pence, representing President Donald Trump at the summit, indirectly but pointedly rejected Xi’s “Humankind First” rhetoric.

In fact, in stinging remarks, Pence condemned China, its behavior, and its BRI in particular, though he didn’t mention China’s trade, investment and infrastructure program by name.

Indirectly, but unmistakably, referring to the “infrastructure loans” that Beijing is “offering to governments across the Indo-Pacific and the wider world” under its trillion-dollar flagship scheme,  the US vice president said, “The terms of those loans are often opaque,” China-funded projects “are often unsustainable and of poor quality” and “too often,” those Chinese loans and projects “come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt.”

Pence called on “all the nations across this wider region and the world … not [to] accept [such] foreign debt that could compromise [their] sovereignty,” vehemently urging them to “protect [their] interests, [preserve their] independence” and most importantly, “just like America, always put [their] country first.”

“America First” was the central theme of Trump’s presidential campaign and has been his core policy since his election as America’s 45th president two years ago.

In his speech at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam, last November, Trump publicly stated he was “always going to put America first the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

His deputy delivered the same message this year, even though Pence was much more critical of China than his boss was last year.

It is why China’s officials and state-run media reacted angrily to Pence’s remarks. In an editorial on November 17, the Global Times, published by the People’s Daily, China’s top mouthpiece, said, “Pence’s speech at APEC barely offers anything new.”

Yet, in the same vein, it can be said that Xi’s 2018 “APEC speech offers nothing new” as he merely reiterated the exact – or more of the same – messages.

International homilies

In fact, in his key international homilies over the past two years – such as at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the APEC summit in 2017, the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) in April this year and the China International Import Expo (CIIE) earlier this month – he has always portrayed his country as an unselfish power.

Reading these speeches and Xi’s other major international interventions, one may have the impression that the Asian behemoth is a very – if not the world’s most – responsible, cooperative and altruistic country that always puts humankind first.

Just as in his 2018 APEC speech, in all these major pronouncements, Xi fervently called for – and strongly pledged China’s commitment to – “building a community with a shared future for mankind.”

However, though Trump’s “America First” doctrine is very nationalistic and obnoxious while Xi’s “Humankind First” rhetoric sounds very internationalistic and noble, Xi’s China doesn’t always gain the upper hand over Trump’s America.

With Trump’s no-show, it was believed that the summit in Papua New Guinea (PNG), APEC’s poorest member, would be “the China show.” China didn’t, however, achieve what it had hoped for.

It was reported that non-Chinese state-run media outlets were banned from reporting on Xi’s meetings with the PNG prime minister and other Pacific leaders. At a time when Xi publicly hailed China’s transparency and openness, that wasn’t good news for Beijing.

It was also reported that four Chinese officials “barged” into the PNG foreign minister’s office with the aim of influencing the language in the summit’s draft final statement at the 11th hour. Though the Chinese foreign ministry dismissed the story, its mere publication was a bad advert for China.

What’s more, despite having invested heavily – both economically and politically – in the Pacific island nation in recent years and in last week’s three-day event in particular, China failed to galvanize enough support for its posture at the summit, which ended, for the first time in APEC’s 26-year history, without a joint communique.

China failed to galvanize enough support for its posture at the summit, which ended, for the first time in APEC’s 26-year history, without a joint communique

The assessment that Xi left PNG “dissatisfied and disgruntled” is justified, because, as the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported, China’s tightly controlled media outlets had little to say over the summit discord.

By contrast, on the sidelines of the summit, the US, Japan and Australia released a joint statement declaring that they would “work with governments of the Indo-Pacific to support and encourage infrastructure projects that adhere to international standards and principles for development, including openness, transparency, and fiscal sustainability.” Such an approach, it said, would “help to meet the region’s genuine needs while avoiding unsustainable debt burdens for the nations of the region.” Again, though mentioning neither China nor its BRI, the three allies took a swipe at Beijing.

A primary reason that China hasn’t been able to establish any meaningful international coalition against the Trump administration’s protectionism is that the Asian behemoth isn’t as free, open and benevolent as its “core” leader paints, while the latter isn’t as protectionist as Trump sounds.

Indeed, as previously demonstrated, despite Trump, Xi’s China cannot (yet) play a central leadership role in the region – let alone in the world – simply because, for all Xi’s nice rhetoric, his country still lags far behind Trump’s America in terms of economic and political openness.

It’s worth noting that in his 2018 APEC speech, while urging the regional countries to “endeavor to build a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP),” Xi neither said whether China would do anything to advance it nor mentioned another key China-led initiative, i.e. the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In contrast, in his 2016 APEC intervention, which came just over a week after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Xi confidently pledged that China would “fully involve [itself] in economic globalization by […] advancing the FTAAP and working for the early conclusion of the negotiations on the [RCEP].”

Xi didn’t make such promises in his latest intervention, possibly because he realized that, despite its huge market and new-found power, China has failed to play a decisive role in forging multilateral FTAs. With their inability to reach major breakthroughs in their recent meeting in Singapore, China and the other 15 negotiating countries couldn’t conclude the RCEP in 2018, having already missed negotiating deadlines in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

In some cases, Xi’s China is even more nationalistic than Trump’s America. The difference is that Trump publicly professes he puts America first and urges other countries to do the same. In contrast, while rhetorically championing an internationalistic approach to global affairs, Xi, in practice, follows a “China First” policy.

Without a doubt, should Xi truly put into practice what he beautifully preaches, his country and the US wouldn’t face the current confrontation on trade and other key political and security issues.

That said, Trump’s “America First” doctrine is also a key catalyst for the deadlock in the relations between the world’s two biggest economies and militaries.

If his administration stubbornly pursues a nationalist, protectionist and unilateralist foreign policy that overwhelmingly favors bilateral agreements over multilateral regimes, his country will suffer – economically and geopolitically. Such a narrow approach could also undermine the raison d’être of key regional platforms, such as APEC.

Xuan Loc Doan

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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