BEIJING: President Xi Jinping pushed China’s road map for free trade as Asia-Pacific leaders held talks on Tuesday focused on narrowing differences over how to open up commerce across the vast and economically dynamic region.
US President Barack Obama, Xi, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—heads of the world’s three biggest economies—were among leaders attending the Beijing-hosted summit, held under the shadow of political and trade tensions.
China wants the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to endorse a stronger commitment to the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) idea, a long-term APEC vision of open trade encompassing the whole region.
It would build on other initiatives including the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but China’s firm advocacy of the plan over TPP has added to Sino-US trade competitions.
Xi told the summit’s opening session at a lakeside resort north of the capital that APEC should “break open the closed doors within the Asia Pacific” on trade.
“We should push vigorously for the progress of the FTAAP, setting out clearly its targets, direction and roadmap and turn the desire into reality at an early date,” he added.
Interactions between leaders appeared to echo geopolitical allegiances, with Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin nodding and smiling as leaders gathered, a day after they stressed their growing trade and diplomatic partnership.
Abe, however, was accorded only a perfunctory handshake by an unsmiling Xi.
China is embroiled in territorial and historic disputes with Japan, and Xi and Abe held their first top-level formal talks in nearly three years on Monday.
Washington has been pushing the TPP, which aims for a loosening of trade restrictions and embraces 11 other Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Canada, Australia and Mexico, while notably excluding China.
Some Chinese analysts and state media have framed the TPP as an attempt to check Beijing’s growing economic clout – allegations Washington dismisses.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meanwhile, champions the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would bring together Asean and six countries with which it has free trade agreement (FTAs), including China, Japan and India.
China and the United States, however, have shown in Beijing they can still find common ground, with the White House announcing they had “reached an understanding” on an agreement to reduce tariffs on information technology trade.
Washington hopes the move would “contribute to a rapid conclusion” of negotiations in Geneva on the World Trade Organization’s first major tariff-cutting deal in 17 years, Obama told his fellow Asia-Pacific chief executives.
US Trade Representative Mi-chael Froman described the understanding as a “breakthrough” toward updating an existing information technology agreement to include an explosion of new gadgetry in recent years.
“This is encouraging news not just for the US-China trade relationship, it shows that the US and China work together to both advance our bilateral economic agenda, but also to support the multilateral trading system,” he added.
The news follows Obama’s announcement a day earlier that the two sides had reached a reciprocal agreement to extend visa validities to as long as a decade.
Pomp and color
APEC accounts for more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product, nearly half of world trade and 40 percent of the Earth’s population. Set up 25 years ago, it has long pushed free trade among its members, who have separately pursued bilateral and multilateral deals with other economies both inside and outside the organization.
APEC summits, which are consensus-based and have sometimes been criticized as talking shops, combine group meetings with a chance for leaders to meet on the sidelines in one-to-one bilateral sessions to discuss issues that affect their direct relations.
At Monday’s formal dinner that kicked off the summit, the hosts put on a spectacular, highly choreographed welcome for APEC leaders who arrived decked out in sleek, high-collared tunics as hundreds of dancers in the costumes of China’s dozens of ethnic minorities cheered wildly.
Xi unmistakably underscored China’s intention to enhance its world influence by laying out his vision of a Chinese-driven “Asia-Pacific dream” in a speech on Sunday to APEC business leaders.
Meanwhile, Obama, speaking to the same audience on Monday, stressed US global leadership, calling his country a “thoroughly Pacific nation.”
Obama was to hold talks later on Tuesday with Xi.
Talks between Obama and Putin —who are at odds over the latter’s machinations in Ukraine—were not known to be scheduled in Beijing.