HONG KONG – Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered dueling speeches Saturday that offered a window into how the two governments are seeking a truce over tariffs – but remain fundamentally at odds over economics, diplomacy and the race for global influence and primacy.
Pence, taking the stage shortly after Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea, launched a pointed and wide-ranging criticism of China, not just over its commercial practices but also over its transcontinental infrastructure projects and military activity in the South China Sea.
Reiterating U.S. commitment to Asia, Pence saved his most pointed words for Xi's flagship foreign policy initiative – the infrastructure investment plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative – as he warned countries about accepting Chinese loans for port and transportation projects scattered from Pakistan to Indonesia.
"We don't drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don't coerce or compromise your independence," Pence said. "We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road."
The United States "offers a better option," he said as he unveiled a new regional transparency initiative and $60 billion in U.S. investments for the region.
The Trump administration has voiced a far harder line against China and its growing footprint and rising assertiveness, spurring talk on both sides of the Pacific of a new cold war. But the U.S. president's absence was conspicuous this week at two major Asian summits where Xi, instead, dominated the limelight.
The Chinese president delivered a more conciliatory address on Saturday as he warned that "confrontation, whether in the form of a hot war, cold war or trade war, will produce no winners."
He dismissed criticism of his Belt and Road Initiative as a debt "trap" and instead positioned himself as a leader of the developing world who could help lift up poor countries in its orbit.
"Many of the entrepreneurs present here are witnesses, contributors and beneficiaries of China's reform and opening up, and have formed an indissoluble bond with China," said Xi, who appeared to make an oblique jab at U.S. criticisms of human rights abuses in Asia by defending alternative models of development.
"We should be less arrogant and prejudiced," he said. "What kind of road a country takes, only the people of that country can decide."
In Trump's absence, Pence and national security adviser John Bolton have spoken forcefully about the U.S. agenda in Asia, with Pence sharply rebuking Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in her country.
Pence on Saturday acknowledged that the spillover from U.S.-China competition is "felt" by many Asian countries, and reiterated that the U.S. wanted a better relationship with Beijing.
The two governments are hoping when the two leaders meet in Argentina in a few weeks to thrash out a deal that could at least freeze escalating tariffs.
"China knows where we stand," Pence said. "As the president prepares to meet with President Xi at the G-20 Summit in Argentina, we believe that progress could be made."
But Pence took a hard line against Chinese expansionism in Asia as he announced a plan to redevelop a naval base in Papua New Guinea with Australia.
He vowed that the U.S. navy would continue to sail through waters claimed by China in freedom of navigation operations. A series of operations this year led to a near-collision in September when a Chinese destroyer cut off a U.S. warship near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has deployed missile systems.
Pence himself flew earlier this week over the Spratlys in Air Force Two in what he told The Washington Post amounted to a "freedom of navigation mission in and of itself."
"We will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows and our national interests demand," Pence said in his address Saturday. "Harassment will only strengthen our resolve."