Trump holds out promise to revive ties at Apec summit

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New Delhi: US President Donald Trump on Friday held out the promise of a revival of economic and strategic partnership to countries across a large swathe of Asia and the Pacific as he identified India and Japan as key stakeholders to promote stability in the new “Indo-Pacific region”.

In a speech to business leaders from the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) in Da Nang in Vietnam, Trump slammed countries engaged in what he termed unfair trade practices and trade abuses.

Trump is currently on a five-nation tour of Asia which has so far taken him to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. He is set to visit the Philippines on the last leg of his Asia swing, seen as the longest trip by a US President to the region in two decades. It is being seen as an attempt to underscore US commitment to the region that is seemingly overshadowed by the aggressive rise of China.

Soon after taking office, Trump abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal concluded last year with the aim of containing China’s influence in the Pacific region—raising doubts over the US presence in the region.

Describing economic security as national security, Trump outlined his vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, where all countries played by the rules and engaged in fair trade to achieve prosperity.

Although he was addressing an APEC business leaders meeting, Trump repeatedly referred to the Indo-Pacific region and mentioned the importance of India in his speech. “In the broader region, countries outside of APEC are making broad strides…in the Indo-Pacific,” Trump said, referring to a broad swathe of landmass and sea stretching from India all the way to Australia—a term his administration has been using increasingly.

“India is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence. It is a sovereign democracy as well as… the largest democracy in the world. Since India opened up its economy, it has achieved astounding growth and a new world of opportunity for its expanding middle class. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been working to bring that vast country and all of its people together as one, and he is working at it very, very successfully,” Trump said.

A little earlier in his speech, Trump, who also praised Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, besides China, described Japan as a “dynamic democracy,” adding that he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan “agreed on so many things”.

With the two references, Trump seemed to be underlining the policy laid out by his secretary of state Rex Tillerson last month when the latter had sought cooperation among the democracies of the Indo-Pacific region to ensure peace and stability in the region.

Besides Modi and Abe, Trump also referred to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chinese President Xi Jinping by name in his speech. While the reference to Modi, Abe and Lee were complimentary, China came in for both bouquets and brickbats.

Referring to the trade imbalance, Trump said he had frank discussions with Xi during his trip to Beijing on the subject and expressed his desire to “achieve a trading relationship that is conducted on a truly, fair and equal basis”. The current trade imbalance, heavily skewed in China’s favour, was unacceptable, he added.

China is the country with which the US has the biggest trade deficit, but counties like Japan and Vietnam, besides India, are also on the list of countries with surpluses that the Trump administration is seeking to reduce. “If the Indo-Pacific dream, if it’s going to be realised, we must ensure all play by the rules which they do not right now… the US will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression,” he said.

“We will address massive subsidizing of industry through colossal state-owned enterprises that put private enterprises out of business,” he said in an indirect reference to Chinese state-owned companies.

“We seek friendship, we don’t dream of domination. For this reason, we are also refocusing our development efforts. We’re calling on the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to direct their efforts toward high quality infrastructure investment that promotes economic growth,” he said in another oblique reference to China and its lending practices. “The US will also do its part,” he promised in a sign of possible competition with China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative.

In his speech, Trump also alluded to challenges like “territorial expansion” as well as drugs, people smuggling and terrorism.