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COMMENTARY: APEC Summit Breakdown Shines Light on Dimming U.S.-China Relationship

Dueling speeches ripping each other’s policies and lack of a final communique for first time in 29 years bode poorly for coming Trump-Xi talks.

Mark Melnicoe
    Nov 24, 2018 4:35 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: APEC Summit Breakdown Shines Light on Dimming U.S.-China Relationship

With tensions between the U.S. and China boiling over at the APEC forum in Papua New Guinea this week, one wonders if anything can come out of a meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi in less than two weeks.

The two are supposed to talk about their trade differences on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires set for Nov. 30-Dec. 1, but this week's developments at APEC seemed to poison the well.

The headline out of APEC was that no final communique emerged - for the first time in 29 years - because of an impasse between the U.S. and China. Officials from Beijing were so upset over the final language that they stormed into the office of the host's foreign minister insisting on changes, according to media reports.

Agence France-Presse reported that police were called to turn the Chinese away. Chinese officials denied this version of events. But if true, the action broke with diplomatic decorum at an event that aims to encourage dialogue among Pacific Rim countries.

Beyond that, speeches at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit amplified just how far relations have deteriorated between the world's two most important countries. Since President Trump launched his trade war by imposing tariffs on half of all Chinese imports into the U.S. and threatening to tax the remainder, diplomatic officials had hoped to contain the damage to economic matters.


U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaking in Papua New Guinea this week. (Source: Reuters) 

But take a look at what was said at APEC. Vice President Mike Pence drew in a lot more than trade when he told the forum exactly what the Trump administration thinks about China's actions across the board.

"They begin with trade practices, with tariffs and quotas, forced technology transfers, the theft of intellectual property. It goes beyond that to freedom of navigation in the seas [and] concerns about human rights," he said.

In that single paragraph, Pence encapsulated three of the four intractable issues between the U.S. and China, leaving out only the status of Taiwan. The trade war exhibits no sign of resolution, and neither does China's territorial claims over islands in the South China Sea or its prison camps in Xinjiang together with other human rights abuses. These are longstanding issues that the U.S. can't just wave away.

For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping, without naming the U.S., was highly critical of its trade stance.

"Attempts to erect barriers and cut the close economic ties among countries work against the laws of economics and the trend of history," he said. "This is a short-sighted approach and it is doomed to failure."

Instead, Xi called for more trade, further economic opening and strengthening international institutions. Trump holds a clear disdain for multinational institutions and agreements and is willing to walk away from previously negotiated treaties. 

"Win-win Progress or a Zero-sum Game?"

Beyond the trade dispute, is there now anything that can salvage the broader relationship between two countries in which open hostilities seem to be breaking out?

Some analysts said China was wrong to so emphatically reject the proposed communique at APEC, which most countries reportedly supported. Two provisions were at issue. One sought to fight against "unfair trade practices," and another, according to The New York Times, called on group members to work to improve the "negotiating, monitoring and dispute settlement functions" of the World Trade Organization.

"It is certain that China gained nothing by refusing a few words in the proposed draft when almost every other country accepted them," Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told the Times. "We have seen this sort of situation generally since a few years ago."

Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University, told the Times: "China's strident reaction to such innocuous language signals its leaders' concern about being isolated by the U.S. and other countries who may still create a unified front to take on unfair Chinese trading and economic practices."

While Beijing's aggressive posture is fair game for criticism, Xi seemed to have a lot more than economic matters on his mind when he put things into apocalyptic terms.

"Mankind has once again reached a crossroads," he told the APEC forum. "Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation? Openness or closing one's door? Win-win progress or a zero-sum game?"

"The interests of all countries and indeed, the future of mankind hinge on the choice we make."

The speeches by Xi and Pence both came last Saturday, and neither listened to the other, instead leaving the hall.

Three delegates from summit host Papua New Guinea described the atmosphere between China and the United States at the summit as "extremely tense," the South China Morning Post reported.

With Trump and Xi scheduled to meet in less than two weeks, none of this appears to leave room for progress. More broadly, the rhetoric and atmospherics increasingly are reminiscent of the Cold War that turned the U.S. and Russia from allies into enemies after World War II.