Chinese President Xi Jinping and United States Vice-President Mike Pence yesterday locked horns over trade and regional development as they sent starkly contrasting messages on these issues.
Mr Xi urged countries to uphold the multilateral trading system and reject protectionism and unilateralism, calling this a "shortsighted approach" that is "doomed to fail".
Speaking immediately after the Chinese leader, Mr Pence delivered a sharp critique of China's practices, saying that Beijing has taken advantage of the US for many years as it engaged in quotas, forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft. "Those days are over," he said.
The two leaders were addressing business leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) CEO Summit, held on a cruise ship anchored by the Papua New Guinean capital. Mr Pence is representing President Donald Trump at the annual summit of leaders from Apec's 21 members, including Singapore.
Apec was formed nearly 30 years ago to lower barriers to trade, and this year's summit comes as the US and China have imposed tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars of each other's goods, with both threatening to step up action if necessary.
Yesterday, Mr Xi warned against escalating the trade conflict.
"History has shown that confrontation, whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war, or a trade war will produce no winners," he said.
"We believe there are no issues countries cannot resolve through consultation as long as they come to these issues in a spirit of equality and mutual understanding."
But Mr Pence said the US "will not change course until China changes its ways". The US, he said, will "continue to put America first, as all the countries represented here are duty-bound to put the interests of your people first". "America First" does not mean America alone, he added. "We know that our prosperity, our security, and our future are intertwined with yours."
Other leaders weighed in against trade protectionism, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying trade wars benefit no one and must be solved by negotiation rather than tit-for-tat tariffs.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said nations have to re-evaluate the trade model and economic integration, because some people are being left behind.
Mr Xi and Mr Pence yesterday also sparred over China's international trillion-dollar infrastructure drive - the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - that has prompted concerns over what some view as China's use of economic inducements to gain influence in recipient countries.
Mr Xi said: "Let me make this clear - the BRI is an open platform for cooperation. It is guided by the principles of consultation and collaboration for shared benefits.
"It is not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda, it is not targeted against anyone, and it does not exclude anyone. It is not an exclusive club that is closed to non-members, nor is it a trap as some people have labelled."
Mr Pence, however, spoke of how some unnamed countries are offering infrastructure loans to governments with terms that are "opaque at best". These projects are often unsustainable and lead to staggering debt, he said.
He added that the US offers the better option for development financing. "We don't drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don't coerce or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road."
US-China trade tensions are expected to loom large again when Apec leaders meet today.
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