Xi plays peacekeeper in Trump war

Editorial | Mary Ma 11 Apr 2018

The financial world's spontaneous excitement over President Xi Jinping's speech at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan wasn't misplaced, for his remarks may be viewed as a move by China's leader to steer clear of a trade war with the United States.

It was Xi's first public speech since American President Donald Trump started beating the war drum.

Unlike the often tit-for-tat rhetoric from Chinese media and officials, Xi's speech in front of government and economic leaders from around the globe was firm in principle but non-combative in tone.

Undertaking to substantially lower tariffs on imported cars and protect the intellectual property of foreign companies, Xi also committed China to opening its door wider to international trade, if it hadn't been wide enough previously.

Some skeptics may make the criticism that the promises - such as the pledge to ease and eventually remove the limits of foreign ownership of financial institutions - had been made before. Nonetheless, Xi's remarks were timely.

If the United States and China, the two largest economies, can't resolve their differences in time to avoid a direct trade conflict, the impact would be felt by the world as a whole.

Xi's keynote speech was clearly crafted to the tense situation. Conspicuously missing was a repetition of the vow to fight Trump's trade war to the end and at any cost x- the rhetoric that had been played up by the state media and officials.

As I've pointed out before, Xi would be most unlikely to say anything to plunge the world into a panic. What we could read in the speech was a bid by Xi - China's most powerful leader in decades - to deal with Trump's trade offensive with an open policy running against protectionism.

Although he didn't call out Trump or the United States, Xi's message couldn't be clearer. Trump, who depends on Twitter to announce policies, is hardly a match in this regard.

That China will drastically lower tariffs on autos, reduce duties on other products, protect foreign intellectual property, and improve the investment environment were said to be an attempt to address Trump's demands. Yet, Xi was able to be blunt enough to assert protectionism is wrong, and that a cold war mindset is outdated.

"We must refrain from seeking dominance and reject the zero-sum game, refrain from 'beggar thy neighbor' and reject power politics or hegemony while the strong bully the weak," Xi said.

Countries should "stay committed to openness, connectivity and mutual benefits, build an open global economy, and reinforce cooperation within the G20, APEC and other multilateral frameworks.

"We should promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, support the multilateral trading system," he said.

Xi further sought to assure the international community that China harbors no geopolitical ambitions with the "Belt and Road" policy, widely seen in the West as a bid to build a new multinational zone of economic and political influence centered around Beijing. With the Boao Forum titled "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity," Xi used the event to counter those conspiracy theories.

The rallies in the Hong Kong and European markets had everything to do with it. If global market reactions served as a sign, Xi's message was obviously well received.

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