DANANG, VIETNAM (REUTERS, AFP) - US President Donald Trump sent out a strong message on trade at a meeting of Asia-Pacific countries in Vietnam on Friday (Nov 10), saying the United States could no longer tolerate chronic trade abuses and would insist on fair and equal policies.
Trump said the US is ready to make a bilateral deal with any country in the Indo-Pacific region, but only on the basis of “mutual respect and mutual benefit”.
“For many years, the US systematically opened our economy with few conditions,” he said in a speech ahead of a summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders.
“But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us,” he added.
“When the United States enters into a trading relationship with other countries or other peoples, we will from now on expect that our partners will faithfully follow the rules,” he said in the seaside resort of Danang.
“We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides and that private investment, not government planners, will direct investment.”
Trump arrived in Vietnam from China on the fourth leg of a trip to Asia. Redressing the balance of trade between Asia and the US is at the centre of Trump’s “America First” policy he says will protect US workers.
While China has by far the biggest trade surplus with the US, Vietnam is also on the list of those surpluses the Trump administration seeks to reduce.
Apec, which has long championed free trade, has itself been convulsed by the changes under Trump. Since he abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal early in his presidency, the remaining 11 members have struggled to build momentum to keep it alive.
In his speech, Trump also addressed North Korea’s nuclear threat, saying the Asia-Pacific region is being held hostage by the “twisted fantasies” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“The future of this region and its beautiful people must not be held hostage to a dictator’s twisted fantasies of violent conquest and nuclear blackmail,” he said.
The region, he added, must “stand united in declaring that every single step the North Korean regime takes toward more weapons is a step it takes into greater and greater danger”.
Although he was addressing a meeting alongside the summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, Trump repeatedly referred to the Indo-Pacific region and mentioned the importance of India in his speech.
Trump broke early with the “Pivot to Asia” of the Obama administration, worrying some traditional allies that he would allow China to extend its increasing dominance. Danang itself sits on the shore of the South China Sea, one of the region’s biggest security challenges and where China’s neighbours challenge its sweeping claim to most of the waterway as having no basis in law.
Danang has a special place in US-Vietnamese history: it was where the first US ground troops disembarked in 1965 in the escalation of a war that would last another decade before the communist victory. Danang was close to some of the heaviest fighting and its air base was the route through which many Americans of Trump’s generation were sent to the war.
Trump himself did not serve, receiving five deferments – one for bone spurs in his heel.
The US President's speech was also heavy on history and praises for the countries represented in the audience.
"America stands as a proud member of the community of nations who make a home on the Pacific," he said. "We have been friends, partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific for a long, long time," he added.
"The story of this region in recent decades is the story of what is possible when people take ownership of their future."