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International relations

'America first' vs. 'We are the world': US and China at Davos

Trump boasts of 'new model' while Beijing official plays up international role

U.S. President Donald Trump, left. and Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng offered different views of the world at Davos. (Photos courtesy of the World Economic Forum)

DAVOS, Switzerland -- U.S. President Donald Trump essentially delivered an election-year stump speech on foreign soil Tuesday, touting his domestic accomplishments in a 30-minute address on the opening day of this year's World Economic Forum.

A few hours later, in a slightly shorter speech on the same podium, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng focused on his own country's role as a good global citizen. Without directly painting the U.S. as the villain, Han emphasized the various ways China has become a flag-bearer of globalism based on openness and multilateralism. Beijing usually presents itself to an international audience in this manner -- a portrayal that is then widely disseminated back home via controlled media.

Trump described an American economic turnaround on his watch as "nothing short of spectacular." After boasting of high foreign direct investment in the U.S., he claimed that "to every business looking for a place where they are free to invest, build, thrive, innovate and succeed, there is no better place on Earth than the United States."

Han, on the other hand, portrayed China as the standard-bearer of the international order, noting early in his speech that "protectionism and unilateralism keep spreading." But such approaches "will lead nowhere," and "simply putting the blame on economic globalization is neither consistent with facts nor helpful to solve problems," he warned.

He emphasized Beijing's willingness to work within current rules and the existing order. Noting the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, Han vowed a "commitment to the U.N. Charter" and to "improve and reform" global governance. He stressed that "international affairs must not be dictated by one country or a few countries," without naming them.

On China and the recently signed "phase one" trade agreement, Trump compared himself favorably to predecessors.

"Perhaps the most transformative change of all is on trade reform, where we're addressing chronic problems that have been ignored, tolerated or enabled for decades," he said. "Our leaders did nothing about what happened to us on trade. Before I was elected, China's predatory practices were undermining trade for everyone, but no one did anything about it, except allow it to keep getting worse and worse and worse."

Trump also cited the revised trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, passed in the U.S. Congress the same week he signed the China deal. The two pacts "represent a new model of trade for the 21st century -- agreements that are fair, reciprocal, and that prioritize the needs of workers and families," he said.

China has now "agreed to substantially do things that they would not have done," Trump said, such as protect intellectual property, halt forced technology transfers, remove trade barriers, open up its financial sector, and maintain a stable currency.

These concessions "would not have been possible without the implementation of tariffs, which we had to use, and we're using them on others, too," he said. "And that is why most of our tariffs on China will remain in place during the 'phase two' negotiations" slated to begin "very shortly," Trump said.

When discussing the "phase one" agreement with the U.S., Han emphasized China's role of global citizen. After pointing to Beijing's desire to promote balanced trade and not seek surpluses, he described the deal as "good for China, good for the U.S. and good for the world." On the commitment to purchase $200 billion in American goods and services -- which Trump said could end up closer to $300 billion -- Beijing will operate "on the basis of WTO rules, market terms and commercial principles, which means the purchases will not affect the interests of other trade partners," Han said, without elaborating on how this will be accomplished.

"We should make economic globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial for all," Han said.

Seemingly mindful of the wariness regarding Beijing's rising presence on the global stage, Han noted that "China's development is closely connected with the rest of the world." The country is "a champion of international cooperation and an advocate of multilateralism," he said.

Economic globalization, Han said, "is a natural result of the advance in science and technology."

Han's remarks skipped over sensitive issues drawing international attention, such as the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong -- a city for which Han serves as Beijing's point man. Negativity is carefully scripted out of such foreign speeches by Chinese leaders, and China's contribution to the world order is emphasized, all to burnish the government's image back home.

Despite the lack of common ground in their speeches, Trump and Han took care not to directly attack each other's countries.

Han mentioned the U.S. by name only when talking about the trade deal in a very positive tone. Trump did make some harsh comments about past Chinese trade practices but summed up by saying that "our relationship with China, right now, has probably never been better." Trump's personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping "is an extraordinary one," he said.

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