Chinese President Xi Jinping promised on Monday to lower tariffs, broaden market access and import more from overseas at the start of a trade expo designed to demonstrate goodwill amid mounting frictions with the United States and others.
The Nov. 5-10 China International Import Expo, or CIIE, brings thousands of foreign companies together with Chinese buyers in a bid to demonstrate the importing potential of the world's second-biggest economy.
In a speech that largely echoed previous promises, Xi said China would accelerate opening of the education, telecommunications and cultural sectors, while protecting foreign companies' interests and punishing violations of intellectual property rights.
He also said he expects China to import $30 trillion worth of goods and $10 trillion worth of services in the next 15 years. Last year, Xi estimated that China would import $24 trillion worth of goods over the coming 15 years.
"CIIE is a major initiative by China to pro-actively open up its market to the world," Xi said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has railed against China for what he sees as intellectual property theft, entry barriers to U.S. business and a gaping trade deficit.
Foreign business groups, too, have grown weary of Chinese reform promises, and while opposing Trump's tariffs, have longed warned that China would invite retaliation if it didn't match the openness of its trading partners.
Xi said the expo showed China's desire to support global free trade, adding — without mentioning the United States — that countries must oppose protectionism.
He said "multilateralism and the free trade system is under attack, factors of instability and uncertainty are numerous, and risks and obstacles are increasing."
"With the deepening development today of economic globalization, 'the weak falling prey to the strong' and 'winner takes all' are dead-end alleys," he said.
Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics, said the speech was meaningful, if short on fresh initiatives.
"I don't think that there were necessarily path-breaking new reforms announced by him today, but I guess I would take this as a confirmation that China is very keen to be seen as continuing to open up further and committing to that stance," he said.
China imported $1.84 trillion of goods in 2017, up 16 percent, or $255 billion, from a year earlier. Of that total, China imported about $130 billion of goods from the United States. The Chinese government's top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, said in March that China would import $8 trillion of goods in the next five years.
Expectations had been low that Xi would announce bold new policies of the kind that many foreign governments and businesses have been seeking.
The European Union, which shares U.S. concerns over China's trade practices if not Trump's tariff strategy to address them, on Thursday called on China to take concrete steps to further open its market to foreign firms and provide a level playing field, adding that it would not sign up to any political statement at the forum.
With little in the way of fresh policies from Xi on Monday, all eyes now turn to an expected meeting between him and Trump at the G-20 summit in Argentina at the end of the month.
"It seems like what (Xi) is actually doing is saving up all of his goodies to trade away with Trump as opposed to doing anything unilateral," said Scott Kennedy, a Chinese economic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Now everything is focused on the G-20."
Trump has said that if a deal is not made with China, he could impose tariffs on another $267 billion of Chinese imports into the United States.
In a sign the trade row is starting to bite, export orders to the United States recorded during China's biggest trade show, the Canton Fair in October, dropped 30.3 percent from a year earlier by value, the fair's organiser China Foreign Trade Center said.
Presidents or prime ministers from 17 countries were set to attend the expo, ranging from Russia and Pakistan to the Cook Islands, though none from major Western nations. Government ministers from several other countries were also coming, but no senior U.S. officials were set to attend.
Swiss President Alain Berset did not make the trip to China, despite being announced as among attendees by China's foreign ministry last week. The Swiss government said in a statement to Reuters on Sunday that his visit had never been confirmed.
Some Western diplomats and businesses have been quietly critical of the expo, arguing it is window dressing to what they see as Beijing's long-standing trade abuses.
Exhibitors from around 140 countries and regions will be on hand, including 404 from Japan, the most of any country. From the United States, some 136 exhibitors will attend, including Google, Dell, Ford, and General Electric.
A handful of countries are being represented by a single exhibitor selling one product.