KUALA LUMPUR: President Xi Jinping pegged China as the pivot point for global free trade on Thursday (Nov 19), vowing to keep his “super-sized” economy open and warning against protectionism in a global economy eviscerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buoyed by the signing of the world’s largest trade pact over the weekend, Xi said the Asia-Pacific is the “forerunner driving global growth” in a world hit by “multiple challenges” including the coronavirus.
He vowed “openness” to trade and refuted any possibility of the “decoupling” of China’s economy – in his only comments nodding to the hostile trade policy of Donald Trump’s US administration, which has battered China with tariffs and tech restrictions.
“We will further reduce tariffs and institutional costs … and expand imports of high-quality products and services from all countries,” Xi said in a keynote speech delivered via video.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, held online this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, brings together 21 Pacific Rim countries including the world’s two biggest economies, accounting for about 60 per cent of global GDP.
It was not immediately clear if Trump, wounded by his election loss to Joe Biden, would take part in the summit or send a high level delegate in his place.
In a speech that touted China’s economic “resilience and vitality” in coming back from the coronavirus, which first emerged in the central city of Wuhan, Xi warned countries who insist on trade barriers will suffer self-inflicted wounds.
“Openness enables a country to move forward while seclusion holds it back,” he said.
“China will actively cooperate with all countries, regions and enterprises that want to do so. We will continue to hold high the banner of openness and cooperation.”
Xi also called for stronger policy coordination among international communities and said globalisation is “irreversible”.
China will pursue higher quality growth through its “dual circulation” development model, driven by technological innovation, he said.
“Our new development pattern is not a closed domestic single circulation, but an open and mutually promoting domestic and international dual circulation,” Xi said.
The “dual circulation” strategy envisages that China’s next phase of development will depend mainly on “domestic circulation” or an internal cycle of production, distribution and consumption, backed by domestic technological innovation.
Xi also said China will sign free trade pacts with more countries and will promote a high-quality Belt and Road initiative.
At a key meeting last month, Xi and other leaders laid out a blueprint for China’s five-year plan and key objectives for the next 15 years. They include a goal to turn China into a “high income” nation by 2025 and advance to a “moderately developed” nation by 2035.
The high rhetoric may raise eyebrows in capitals where China has either restricted trade, imposed sudden blocks or used its giant economy as a bargaining chip in wider geopolitical plays.
In the APEC region, Australian exports including beef, wine and barley have been disrupted to their largest market, as diplomatic rumble over the origins of the pandemic as well as alleged antics by each other’s spies hammer relations.
The APEC gathering comes a week after China and 14 other Asia-Pacific countries signed the world’s largest free-trade deal.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which excludes the US, is viewed as a major coup for China and further evidence that Beijing is setting the agenda for global commerce as Washington retreats.
RCEP’s rival was the Trans-Pacific Partnership – championed by former US president Barack Obama – but Trump pulled out of it and the pact has been replaced by a watered-down alternative that the United States has not joined.
Xi had no direct words for President-elect Biden, whose ascension to office next year – while still clouded by Trump’s refusal to concede defeat – is seen as likely to see a more nuanced extension of Washington’s current China policy.
Biden has been strident on China’s human rights record, from the Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region to Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
While he will cast a more moderate presence on the global stage, analysts say he will seek deeper alliances to hem in Chinese tech – which the US says provides a back door to Beijing – and trade imbalances.