China's Xi again talks up commitment to 'free trade'

  • China is this week promoting itself to the world as a major buyer of goods with the China International Import Expo.
  • Xi said the expo "demonstrates China's consistent position of supporting the multilateral trading system and promoting free trade. It is a concrete action taken by China to advance an open world economy and support economic globalization."
Lintao Zhang/Pool via REUTERS
Lintao Zhang | Pool | Reuters
Lintao Zhang/Pool via REUTERS

SHANGHAI, China — For the third time since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, Chinese President Xi Jinping took to the global stage on Monday to repeat his rhetoric against protectionism and promote his country as an advocate for international openness and cooperation.

While China has made some progress on opening up its economy to foreign companies, critics say the pace is still too slow and many of Xi's announcements have been in the works for some time. In fact, China's attempts to position itself as a champion of globalization fly in the face of its status as one of the most protectionist major nations.

Despite that, Xi discussed at length during his highly anticipated address about the benefits of an open international economy,

"The economic and social well-being of countries in the world is increasingly interconnected. The reform of the global governance system and the international order is picking up speed," Xi said during his speech from the China International Import Expo. "On the other hand, the world economy is going through profound adjustment and protectionism and unilateralism are resurging. Economic globalization faces headwinds, and multilateralism and the system of free trade are under threat."

To face those headwinds, Xi presented his country as one pursuing "a new round of high-standard opening up" and intent on widening "its market access to the rest of the world." In fact, he said, this week's expo "demonstrates China's consistent position of supporting the multilateral trading system and promoting free trade. It is a concrete action taken by China to advance an open world economy and support economic globalization."

The Chinese leader said his country will seek to stimulate the potential for increased imports and will further lower import tariffs. He also pledged that China will speed up the opening of its education, telecommunications and cultural sectors. As it now stands, Asia's largest economy maintains extensive barriers for foreign firms looking to conduct business in those areas.

The speech also briefly addressed the issue of intellectual property theft, which has been a chief complaint foreign firms have had about China. Xi pledged to "enhance" the punishments for such actions to "significantly raise the cost for offenders."

Xi also acknowledged that parts of China's economy are facing challenges and uncertainty right now, but said the government is working quickly to address those issues and has improved in its overall ability to manage macroeconomic growth.

The Monday speech comes less than 48 hours before the midterm elections in the U.S., which the world is watching for signs about whether the Trump administration can maintain its policy momentum. The Tuesday contests could also hold implications for Washington's foreign relations as trade tensions between the world's two largest economies have escalated.

Last week, major stock indexes rose amid renewed hope that Trump and Xi were moving closer to an agreement on trade. White House officials later pushed back on the idea of an imminent deal, however. The two leaders are set to meet later this month at the G-20 summit in Argentina.

In the meantime, China is promoting itself to the world as a major buyer of goods with the week-long China International Import Expo. More than 3,600 enterprises have signed up for the expo and 172 countries and regions will participate, according to the event's website.

Beijing has named 12 countries as "Guests of Honor” for the expo: Russia, Canada, the U.K., Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa and Vietnam. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, tweeted Sunday she is looking forward to participating in the expo in Shanghai.

However, many major Western nations are generally less enthusiastic. None appeared on a list of 18 heads of state who are set to attend the expo at Xi's invitation, according to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the expo said 180 U.S. firms have signed up, the Trump administration is reportedly not sending senior government officials.

—Reuters and CNBC's Huileng Tan contributed to this report.