China's Xi takes advantage of Obama absence from Asia-Pacific trade summit


Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers his keynote address at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 7. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
October 7, 2013

Chinese President Xi Jinping took advantage Monday of President Obama’s absence from the premier Asian trade and economic summit to push its own offers to neighboring nations.

China is next door and seeks economic ties that benefit and unite all states in the region of expanding economies, Xi said as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum got underway without full participation from the United States, the world’s largest economy.

Skirting security confrontations with Japan and several Southeast Asian nations, Xi underscored Chinese commitment to a peaceful region that is good for business.

The Asia-Pacific is a big family," he told a group of business executives. "A family of harmony prospers. China is ready to live in amity with others."

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, acting as Obama’s stand-in, countered that the United States sets a model for business fair play. The world’s next star entrepreneurs will not be born out of economies that repress innovation and steal good ideas, Kerry said.

“Every entrepreneur and business in the Asia Pacific needs to know that they can reap the benefits when they develop the next big thing,” Kerry said, in an implicit challenge to the alleged Chinese practice of appropriating intellectual property. “If your ideas are at risk of being stolen, and your innovations can be ripped off, you will never reach the full potential of that country or economy.”

Xi and Kerry were selling their nations as the best business partners for emerging economies in Asia, but the contest highlighted the larger confrontation between the United States and China for economic and military influence across Asia.

Obama’s no-show at APEC left a clearer field for Xi, who is bracketing his visit to this resort island with trade-flavored stops elsewhere in Indonesia and in Malaysia. Obama had been due to visit both nations, but he cancelled the trip because of the federal government shutdown.

Xi acknowledged a slowdown in China’s economic growth, but he said it was expected and not a cause for concern.

“I am fully confident about the future of China,” Xi told the delegates. "I am deeply convinced the Chinese economy will sustain its sound growth."

In an address colored by references to poetry and nature, Xi said China seeks peace and harmony. He made no direct reference to bitter territorial disputes with several nations whose delegates populated the hall, including Japan and the Philippines.

Earlier Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the United States, Australia and Japan should not use their alliance as an excuse to intervene in territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas.

China and Japan both claim tiny, uninhabited islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

"The United States, Japan and Australia are allies, but this should not become an excuse to interfere in territorial disputes,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “It will only make the problems more complicated and harm the interests of all parties.”

Kerry and his Japanese and Australian counterparts had issued a statement opposing “coercive or unilateral actions” to change the status quo.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are all also involved in sovereignty disputes with China.

The United States has tried to unite Southeast Asian nations under the U.S. banner, promising rhetorical and some military help.

Malaysia, the nation that may be most on the fence, is hosting Xi in a few days. Obama had also been scheduled to travel there; Kerry will stand in for him.

Shen Dingli, Fudan University vice dean of the Institute of International Affairs, said the United States no longer had the clout “to make the rules and lead the world” but was still sticking to its old strategy without the resources to back it up.

China, by contrast, does not seek hegemony and has an opportunity to win friends in the region as a result, Shen said.

Xi’s friendly, relatively low-key address drew applause and appreciative comments in the hall of executives and government officials.

He never mentioned Obama or the president’s decision to stay home to tend to the domestic political crisis caused by the government shutdown.

“I think it’s very damaging,” Brookings Institution Asia scholar Kenneth Lieberthal said of Obama’s absence. The most acute damage may be to Obama’s chances to line up a trans-Pacific free-trade deal in the next several months, Lieberthal said.

“There’s a big difference between having the president go out for a major meeting like this and having the secretary of state substitute for him.”

Simon Denyer and Liu Liu contributed to this report from Beijing.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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