Boao time for Xi to be the anti-Trump

Editorial | Apr 9, 2018
US President Donald Trump's doubling down on the imposition of trade tariffs on an additional US$100 billion (HK$780 billion) worth of Chinese goods has instantly shaken market confidence that the two largest economies would be able to pull back from a trade war at the last minute. This makes the Boao Forum being held on the scenic island of Hainan - "China's Hawaii" - all the more important. President Xi Jinping hasn't yet commented publicly on the rising trade tensions. So far, only his underlings and state propaganda machines have been spewing out the rhetoric. The most quotable quote to date is China's combative vow to "fight to the end, at any cost." In contrast, the Americans are practicing hypocrisy - avoiding the word "war" even though they're starting one. Their non-rhetorical approach has been a big contrast to Trump's preference for slogans. There's still time between now and the actual execution of the trade war tariffs. However, it's difficult to say if the action and reaction over the past week - and probably more in coming weeks - amount to mere bluffs ahead of hard talks. But the concern is that, even if it's all huffing and puffing, each side is piling up political stakes at home. When the pressure builds up to a certain level, will the leaders suddenly find themselves in a situation in which graceful climbdown to avert a real trade war is preempted? It's against this backdrop that government and economic leaders are attending the forum in the coastal town of Bo'ao, about 105 kilometers from the provincial capital of Haikou. The forum - modeled after the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland - brings together leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and internationally, to share their vision on the most pressing issues in the region and the world at large. Xi will deliver the keynote speech tomorrow. What will he say in his first major public speech since emerging stronger than ever from recent important political conferences in Beijing? Will it be something to deepen the crisis, or stabilize the situation? Will he tell the world what his new ruling team will do? That's plausible since the forum is the perfect platform to do just that. This year's theme is "An Open and Innovative Asia for a World of Greater Prosperity." Obviously, Xi is setting his sights on the world beyond Asia, to showcase his country's economic rise after 40 years of opening up and reforms. But Trump's pounding of the war drum may have complicated Beijing's script for the forum. If Xi had been able to avoid commenting on a trade war directly in the past, he would have to talk about it at the Boao. On one hand, he must exhibit a readiness to retaliate against Trump's aggression; and on the other hand, he must demonstrate China is committed to further opening up. He will probably reveal further particulars about his plan to establish free trade ports within the country. If Trump likes to scare the hell out of everybody, it's extremely unlikely Xi will say something to plunge the world into a panic. If the unpredictable US leader is playing the role of a protectionist attacker, the Boao Forum will provide an ideal stage for Xi to portray himself as the defender of globalization.

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March 2019