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Trump delivers 'America First' trade message to Asia conference, says U.S. will only cut deals with individual nations

Noah Bierman, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

The tough critique contrasted with Trump's rhetoric in China leading up to Friday's speech, when he muted his criticism of the country as he sought to build a warmer personal bond with President Xi Jinping. Indeed, the only mention of China by name on Friday came when Trump repeated statements he made alongside Xi on Thursday, blaming his predecessors rather than China for the U.S. trade deficit.

"I do not blame China or any other country, of which there are many, for taking advantage of the United States on trade," Trump said. "If their representatives are able to get away with it, they are just doing their jobs.

"I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it," he continued. "They did not, but I will."

The remarks on China injected added tension at the conference. Trump's speech was followed immediately by an address from Xi, who celebrated globalization and open markets. Since Trump's rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Xi has aggressively courted Asian trading partners, seeking to fill the leadership void.

Trump's speech was one of two major addresses he has delivered on his 13-day, five-nation tour. The first, in Seoul, focused on security and the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear program. Friday's speech was intended to outline Trump's economic agenda and the principal of a "free and open Indo-Pacific," a term his administration has begun promoting to bring India into the regional alliances to help balance China's growing power.

Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership soon after taking office. President Barack Obama, picking up from President George W. Bush's early efforts, had brokered that agreement in part to counter China and assert America's place as a power in the region. It was supported by many of the Asian allies Trump is visiting and addressing on his trip, and they have been apprehensive about U.S. intentions since he was elected, given his nationalist and anti-globalist platform.

Trump said that the United States would remain an important regional player but on far different terms than under Obama and other recent predecessors. He said the U.S. would instead forge bilateral trade agreements with individual countries "that will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade, while resisting multilateral agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible."

He pitched it as a winning formula for everyone: "We will respect your independence and your sovereignty," he said. "We want you to be strong, prosperous and self-reliant, rooted in your history and branching out toward the future."

Yet Trump said the "Indo-Pacific dream" is only possible when all countries play by the rules. "Those who do not can be certain that the United States will no longer turn a blind eye to violations, cheating or economic aggression," he said. "Those days are over."

After much speculation about whether Trump would meet separately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit, the White House confirmed that he would not. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that was "due to scheduling conflicts on both sides."

Yet she acknowledged that time had been reserved on his public schedule for at least one meeting with a foreign leader. "I don't think there's anything that will take place in that space," she said.

She added that an informal exchange between Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the conference is "certainly possible and likely."

Any meeting with Putin would have been especially sensitive and politically charged, coming at a time when the White House is dealing with the intensifying investigation into potential collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government involving Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Trump had said on his way to Asia last week that he "expected" to meet with the Russian leader during the summit. A Putin aide had earlier told Russian media that a meeting was confirmed.

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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