Trump pitches ‘America First’ trade policy at Asia-Pacific summit

DANANG, Vietnam — President Trump pitched a go-it-alone, “America First” trade policy on Friday to nations that once pinned their economic hopes on a regional pact led by the United States. He vowed to protect US interests against foreign exploitation.

“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump told business leaders at the Asia-
Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

Promising to pursue “mutually beneficial commerce” through bilateral trade agreements, Trump roundly condemned the kind of multilateral accords his predecessors pursued, reprising a message he brought to China this week that blamed weak US leadership for trade imbalances that he said had stripped jobs, factories, and entire industries from the United States.


“What we will no longer do is enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible,” Trump said.

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It was a strikingly hostile message to an audience that included leaders who had tied their fortunes to the Trans-
Pacific Partnership, a sweeping 12-nation accord that was to be led by the United States, from which Trump withdrew after taking office.

And it indicated the degree to which, under Trump, the United States — once a dominant voice guiding discussions about trade at gatherings such as APEC — has ceded that role.

Even as he was railing against multilateral approaches, the remaining 11 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership were negotiating intensively to seal the agreement. Under the terms being discussed, the United States could reenter the pact in the future.

As if to underscore the contrast, President Xi Jinping of China, who took the stage immediately after Trump, used his own speech to make a spirited defense of globalization, saying it should be “more open, more inclusive, more balanced, more equitable, and more beneficial to all.”


Trump instead spoke witheringly about an approach he said had led the United States to lower its own trade barriers, only to have other countries refuse to do so, and he accused the World Trade Organization of treating the United States unfairly.

Many of the president’s toughest lines — his vow to fight the “audacious theft” of intellectual property from US companies and the forced transfer of technology to foreign firms — were aimed at China.

But Trump avoided criticizing Xi personally. And he repeated his contention that he did not blame China, or any other country, for taking advantage of what he called weak US trade laws.

“If their representatives are able to get away with it, they are just doing their jobs,” the president said. “I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.”

US officials said no substantantive meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected during the Vietnam conference, but the two presidents did end up shaking hands and exchanging greetings before posing for a photograph at the APEC gala dinner Friday evening. Both wore silk Vietnamese shirts for the picture.


White House officials had framed Trump’s speech as a chance to articulate the theme of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, which the Trump administration has adopted as its answer to former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia.

First proposed by the Japanese, it envisions the United States strengthening ties with three other democracies in the region — Australia, India and Japan — in part to counter a rising China. But the president offered few details about that approach.

He spoke of the need for freedom of navigation — a reference to the South China Sea, which Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries complain Beijing is turning into a private waterway. But the president stopped short of calling out China by name.

He also did not fault China or his host, Vietnam, for their checkered human rights records, even as he offered a general endorsement of the rule of law and individual rights.

As in his speech to the United Nations in September, Trump emphasized the idea of sovereignty, a concept that is often seen as being at odds with global cooperation and that is sometimes used by countries to fend off interference by outside powers.

He closed the speech with an inward-looking paean to the virtues of home, declaring, “In all of the world, there is no place like home.”

Xi, in contrast, argued for pursuing the kinds of global initiative. He championed the Paris climate accord, called globalization an “irreversible historical trend,” and said China would continue to pursue a free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific.

As Trump arrived in Danang, the White House announced that he would not hold formal talks with Putin of Russia during the summit meeting.