Pence, China’s pres­i­dent de­liver speeches, seek truce over tar­iffs

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - News - BY GERRY SHIH

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping de­liv­ered du­el­ing speeches Sat­ur­day that of­fered a win­dow into how the two govern­ments are seek­ing a truce over tar­iffs – but re­main fun­da­men­tally at odds over eco­nom­ics, diplo­macy and the race for global in­flu­ence and pri­macy.

Pence, tak­ing the stage shortly af­ter Xi at the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion sum­mit in Papua New Guinea, launched a pointed and wide-rang­ing crit­i­cism of China, not just over its com­mer­cial prac­tices but also over its transcon­ti­nen­tal in­fra­struc­ture projects and mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity in the South China Sea.

Re­it­er­at­ing U.S. com­mit­ment to Asia, Pence saved his most pointed words for Xi’s flag­ship for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tive – the in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment plan known as the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive – as he warned coun­tries about ac­cept­ing Chi­nese loans for port and trans­porta­tion projects scat­tered from Pak­istan to In­done­sia.

“We don’t drown our part­ners in a sea of debt. We don’t co­erce or com­pro­mise your in­de­pen­dence,” Pence said. “We do not of­fer a con­strict­ing belt or a one-way road.”

The United States “of­fers a bet­ter op­tion,” he said as he un­veiled a new re­gional trans­parency ini­tia­tive and $60 bil­lion in U.S. in­vest­ments for the re­gion.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has voiced a far harder line against China and its grow­ing foot­print and ris­ing as­sertive­ness, spurring talk on both sides of the Pa­cific of a new cold war. But the U.S. pres­i­dent’s ab­sence was con­spic­u­ous this week at two ma­jor Asian sum­mits where Xi, in­stead, dom­i­nated the lime­light.

The Chi­nese pres­i­dent de­liv­ered a more con­cil­ia­tory ad­dress on Sat­ur­day as he warned that “con­fronta­tion, whether in the form of a hot war, cold war or trade war, will pro­duce no win­ners.”

He dis­missed crit­i­cism of his Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive as a debt “trap” and in­stead po­si­tioned him­self as a leader of the de­vel­op­ing world who could help lift up poor coun­tries in its or­bit.

“Many of the en­trepreneurs present here are wit­nesses, con­trib­u­tors and ben­e­fi­cia­ries of China’s re­form and open­ing up, and have formed an in­dis­sol­u­ble bond with China,” said Xi, who ap­peared to make an oblique jab at U.S. crit­i­cisms of hu­man rights abuses in Asia by de­fend­ing al­ter­na­tive mod­els of de­vel­op­ment. “We should be less ar­ro­gant and prej­u­diced,” he said. “What kind of road a coun­try takes, only the peo­ple of that coun­try can de­cide.”

In Trump’s ab­sence, Pence and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton have spo­ken force­fully about the U.S. agenda in Asia, with Pence sharply re­buk­ing Myan­mar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the treat­ment of Ro­hingya Mus­lims in her coun­try.

Pence on Sat­ur­day ac­knowl­edged that the spillover from U.S.-China com­pe­ti­tion is “felt” by many Asian coun­tries, and re­it­er­ated that the U.S. wanted a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing.

The two govern­ments are hop­ing when the two lead­ers meet in Ar­gentina in a few weeks to thrash out a deal that could at least freeze es­ca­lat­ing tar­iffs.

“China knows where we stand,” Pence said. “As the pres­i­dent pre­pares to meet with Pres­i­dent Xi at the G-20 Sum­mit in Ar­gentina, we be­lieve that progress could be made.”

But Pence took a hard line against Chi­nese ex­pan­sion­ism in Asia as he an­nounced a plan to re­de­velop a naval base in Papua New Guinea with Aus­tralia.

He vowed that the U.S. navy would con­tinue to sail through wa­ters claimed by China in free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tions. A se­ries of op­er­a­tions this year led to a near-col­li­sion in Septem­ber when a Chi­nese de­stroyer cut off a U.S. war­ship near the Spratly Is­lands in the South China Sea, where the Chi­nese mil­i­tary has de­ployed mis­sile sys­tems.

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