Asia-Pacific leaders have failed to bridge divisions over trade at a summit dominated by a war of words between the United States and China.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Papua New Guinea ended on Sunday without a formal statement for the first time in its history.
“You know the two big giants in the room. What can I say?” said host and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, adding that a chairman’s statement would be released later on Sunday.
The US and China presented contrasting visions for the future of trade and investment in the region in competing policy speeches on Saturday.
Washington and Beijing have been engaged in an escalating trade war this year, imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods, and have said that the tariffs could be increased.
O’Neill said that the main sticking points that prevented a joint statement related to “the World Trade Organisation and reform of the World Trade Organisation.”
“APEC has got no charter over World Trade Organisation, that is a fact. Those matters can be raised at the World Trade Organisation,” he said.
Sources told the AFP news agency that the US had pressed for the leaders to issue a statement that would amount to a denunciation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a call for its wholesale reform.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “different visions on particular elements with regard to trade that prevented full consensus on a communique document.”
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Port Moresby, said the lack of a communique marked a dramatic end to the summit.
“There are always disagreements behind the scenes at these sorts of summits, but normally by the end, publicly, a document is published that all the leaders can put their names to,” he said.
“The fact that this APEC summit has not been able to produce a communique, has not been able to produce a common position that all the leaders can agree to, is pretty dramatic.”
In a speech to regional business leaders on Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping criticised “America First” protectionism and urged countries to pursue free trade policies.
Xi urged the world to “say no to protectionism and unilateralism”, warning it was a “short-sighted approach” that was “doomed to failure”.
US Vice President Mike Pence later told the summit in Port Moresby that Washington would not change its approach until Beijing changes its own trade policies.
“We have taken decisive action to address our imbalance with China,” he said. “We put tariffs on $250bn in Chinese goods, and we could more than double that number.”
“The US will not change course until China changes its ways.”
Pence also mocked China’s Belt-and-Road initiative, under which China offers loans to poorer countries in the region to improve infrastructure.
He said that the terms of China’s loans were “opaque at best” and “too often they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt.”
China’s foreign ministry rejected the US criticism that it was leading other developing nations into debt bondage.
“The assistance provided by China has been warmly welcomed by our partners in this region and beyond,” Wang Xiaolong, a foreign ministry official, told a news conference.
“No country either in this region or in other regions has fallen into a so-called ‘debt trap’ because of its cooperation with China. Give me one example,” he said.