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Mike Pence challenges China at Asia-Pacific economic summit  2 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

SEOUL – Vice President Mike Pence laid out a forceful challenge to China’s growing global influence on Saturday, saying that the United States offered countries “a better option” for economic partnership and criticizing Chinese “authoritarianism and aggression.”

Pence was speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, a gathering of political and business leaders from 21 Pacific Rim countries and territories that make up 60 percent of the world economy.

In his address, Pence said the United States had a vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

“The United States has extended a hand in the spirit of friendship and partnership, seeking collaboration and not control,” he said.

Pence touted U.S. investment as an alternative to Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure and development project spanning Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has come under criticism for leaving some countries deeply indebted to Beijing and saddled with projects that have become white elephants. The government of Sri Lanka, for example, recently handed over its $1-billion Chinese-developed Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease after it couldn’t meet its debt commitments.

Other countries, such as Malaysia, have canceled or are reviewing billions of dollars in BRI projects.

“Know that the United States offers a better option,” Pence said. “We don't drown our partners in a sea of debt, we don't coerce or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly and fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.”

Pence defended the $250 billion tariffs that President Donald Trump has imposed on Chinese goods, which has sparked a trade war between the world’s two largest economies this year, and said that the U.S. could double that figure.

The vice president accused China of putting up “tremendous barriers” to companies entering its market and accused Beijing of unfair practices such as “forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies on an unprecedented scale.”

“The United States will not change course until China changes its ways,” Pence said.

But while Pence reiterated this administration’s “America First” vision, China and other nations defended the system of global free trade at the APEC Summit.

Delivering a keynote address directly before Pence, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against protectionism and unilateralism and said that countries were now facing a choice between cooperation and confrontation.

"Mankind has once again reached a crossroads," he said. "Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation? Openness or closing doors? Win-win progress or a zero-sum game?"

Xi also defended China’s Belt and Road Initiative, saying that it was “not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda.”

“It is not an exclusive club that is closed to non-members nor is it a trap as some people have labeled it," he said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also pushed back against the rising of trade protectionism.

"I know there are legitimate questions around trade arrangements,” he said. “But the solution to perceived unfair trade practices is more likely to be found around the negotiating table than it is in rebuilding a tariff wall."

"Our efforts must be about persuading and convincing our peoples again about the domestic benefits (of free trade),” Morrison added.

Pence used his speech to criticize China’s rising assertiveness in the region, particularly in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where Beijing has been building military bases on artificial islands.

“Authoritarianism and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“The United States of America will continue to uphold the freedom of the seas and the skies,” he said. “We will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows and our national interest demands. Harassment will only strengthen our resolve. We will not change course.”

Beijing and Washington have had a number of close encounters in the South China Sea, as the U.S. Navy conducts “freedom of navigation operations” in waters that China claims sovereignty over.

Pence also announced a military pact with Australia and Papua New Guinea to expand operations at a Manus Island naval base in PNG, in a move that is seen as a counter to China’s aggressive push for influence in the South Pacific.

"We will work with these nations to protect the sovereignty and maritime routes of Pacific Island nations," he said.

Trump, who is not attending the APEC summit, is scheduled to meet with President Xi at the G20 Summit in Argentina at the end of the month.

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