Speeches aboard a cruise liner anchored off Port Moresby at the weekend have left many in the region a bit seasick. At the end of a week of Asean and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings, the world's top leaders could not summon enough common ground in their huddles to clear the fog of uncertainty generated by the increasing rivalry and competition for influence between the United States and China. It was hard to infer, at least from the speeches of US and Chinese leaders, that common ground was even being sought. Against that backdrop of escalating Sino-US tensions, US Vice-President Mike Pence made a call for Asia-Pacific nations to take sides. At the Apec CEO summit in Papua New Guinea, Mr Pence said the US offered nations a better option: It did not drown partners in a "sea of debt" or "compromise your independence". Pouring out two years of Washington's growing impatience with China's trade policies and Beijing's massive infrastructure programme - blamed for pushing unsustainable loans on recipient nations - he said: "We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road."
The US argument of having provided the world with indispensable leadership over the past seven decades has come up hard against China's declarations that it has at last stood up, and that its development experience is just as universal. President Xi Jinping, in much milder tones at the same event, defended his signature Belt and Road Initiative, saying it is not a trap designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda. In a tilt at US tariff policies, he branded protectionism and unilateralism as "short-sighted" and "doomed to failure", and presented instances of China's opening up. But the fact is that barriers do remain, and Beijing has done itself no favour by ignoring Washington's complaint that it is coercing US companies into parting with copyrighted technology.