Chinese President Xi Jinping
Aris Messinis | Pool | Reuters
BEIJING — In a major speech on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping talked up his country’s plans for playing a greater role in global trade, without mentioning ongoing tensions with the U.S.
“We will work for the early signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and speed up negotiations of the China-EU investment treaty, and the China-Japan-ROK free trade agreement,” Xi said in Mandarin, according to an official translation.
The Chinese leader was speaking via video at the opening ceremony of the third China International Import Expo, about 12 hours after U.S. presidential election polls closed. Xi did not specifically mention the U.S., with whom China has been locked in trade tensions for more than two years.
“When it comes to the U.S.-China relationship piece of it, the biggest problem Beijing will have with a Biden presidency is Biden’s ability to work with U.S. allies,” Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society, said in a phone interview. He pointed out that such unification could help foreign nations develop a more cohesive strategy to contain Beijing.
“Biden himself is far more multilateral than Trump,” he said. “That will be a big shift if Biden wins.”
RCEP is set to be the world’s largest trade agreement, if 15 Asia-Pacific countries sign the deal later this year, as expected.
The EU and China have been working on their own investment agreement, but slow progress on the negotiations so far have dimmed hopes of a deal by the end of the year. Talks between Beijing and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea have also been drawn out.
“The omission (in Xi’s speech) of any reference to the phase one agreement or the US is telling,” Stephen Olson, research fellow at the nonprofit Hinrich Foundation, said in an email. “There’s so much tension in the broader relationship right now, it seems that both countries are content to let trade issues slide onto the back burner, rather than engaging on trade and running the risk of a blow-up at a time when relations are already on rocky ground.”
Olson said he wouldn’t read too much into Xi’s comments about the other trade talks, which “were just vague platitudes” restating China’s aim of successfully reaching a deal.
On Wednesday, Xi ran through a list of ways in which China would open its market further to foreign businesses and improve the local operating environment. The initiatives, which have mostly already been announced before, ranged from improving intellectual property protection to reducing restrictions on imports of technology.
“Our aim is to turn the China market into a market for the world, a market shared by all, and a market accessible to all,” Xi said.
Xi added that China will take an active role in the reform of the World Trade Organization and cooperation with the United Nations, G-20, and other international organizations. He called for countries and companies to work together in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 first emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan, before accelerating its spread domestically at the start of this year. The outbreak stalled within China, but has since turned into a global pandemic.
While the world economy faces contraction this year as a result of the pandemic, China is set to be the only major economy to grow, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The first China International Import Expo kicked off in 2018 in a bid to portray the world’s second-largest economy as a buyer, rather than producer and seller, of global goods.
Chinese imports in yuan terms are down 0.6% during the first three quarters of this year from a year ago, while exports are up 1.76% during that time, according to official figures.
The expo said more than 100 brands from the U.K. would participate this year. It was not immediately clear how many American companies were joining. Official materials on the expo website indicated participants included GE, Qualcomm, Cargill, Edwards Lifesciences, Pfizer and Eli Lilly.
Foreign leaders from Pakistan, South Africa, Chile, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Spain, Papua New Guinea and Hungary were also slated to speak at the opening ceremony via video.