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Economy

China and US economies 'inseparable,' Wang Qishan tells Davos

Xi Jinping's right-hand man avoids trade talk but calls himself an 'optimist'

Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan attends the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 23.   © Reuters

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan struck a positive tone on U.S.-China relations in a speech to global political and business leaders gathered here on Wednesday, mostly steering clear of the subject of the two economic powers and their trade war.

"The Chinese and U.S. economies are inseparable, and that's the reality," Wang, regarded as Chinese President Xi Jinping's right-hand man, said at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

"Generally speaking, I belong to the optimist camp," Wang also said.

His remarks became one of the highlights of this year's event amid the absence of a number of prominent world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump.

Wang said little else about the U.S. or its trade war with China during his 45-minute speech and a dialogue with Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. But his remarks hinted at China's rivalry with the U.S. for global leadership.

The world now faces unilateralism and protectionism, Wang said, and China will act as a defender of multilateralism and globalism.

Wang also said innovation and the emergence of new technology bring both risks and opportunities, producing "challenges to certain sets of regulations and standards." These rules need to be "constantly adjusted and reformed based on reality," he said. The vice president also stressed that these regulations "should not stand in the way of development."

He also said participation in global supply chains must be allowed, in an apparent reference to efforts by various nations to block Huawei Technologies and other Chinese technology companies from business deals.

China's economic growth slowed to 6.6% last year, the weakest since 1990, the year after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. But Wang said the figure was "by no means low." More important than headline numbers are the "structure, quality and effectiveness" of the growth, he said.

No matter what happens in 2019, Wang said, China will be able to reach the 2020 goal set by Deng Xiaoping of becoming an "all-round moderately prosperous society."

Victor L.L. Chu, founding chairman of Hong Kong-based First Eastern Investment Group and a longtime investor in mainland China, told the Nikkei Asian Review after Wang's remarks that the vice president had "articulated the Chinese leadership's position again." Chu said he felt that Wang had "reaffirmed China's commitment to the multilateral system and globalization process," which was positive news from an investor's perspective.

Wang received an especially bright spotlight, as Trump canceled his trip to Davos at the last minute due to the government shutdown in Washington. The American presence essentially was limited to a video message by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Nikkei Asian Review before Wang's speech on Wednesday that he "wouldn't exaggerate" the issue.

But Burns added that "I do think it reinforces in the minds of a lot of people uncertainty about American leadership in the world." The government shutdown that triggered Trump's cancellation is "not only terrible to the public servants ... but it's terrible for the image of the U.S.," he said.

John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, downplayed Trump's absence, calling it "superficial domestic politics."

"Having the president not here doesn't diminish Davos, nor does it really reflect how the U.S. thinks about globalization," Hamre said.

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