(CNN) — President Donald Trump brought his hard-line economic nationalism to a summit of Pacific Rim leaders here Friday, issuing a stern rebuke of trade practices that have harmed American workers. But the President also continued to insist his US predecessors are to blame.
“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump said in a speech at the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. “I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”
It was a familiar message delivered to an audience that’s still coming to grips with Trump’s protectionist views. Even as Trump makes his debut appearance at this yearly set of meetings, other leaders are hoping to announce a revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership — the landmark trade accord negotiated by the Obama administration but scrapped by Trump — that doesn’t included the United States.
It’s a show of defiance against a US president who has issued a harsh line on trade during his tour of Asia — but not necessarily against the countries engaging in unfair practices.
He renewed his criticism of past US administrations on Friday, saying they ignored the imbalances in trading practices that allowed other countries to take advantage of the US.
“The current trade imbalance it not acceptable,” Trump said. “I do not blame China, or any other country, of which there are many, for taking advantage of the United States on trade. 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,” Trump said.
The comment, made as Trump stood alongside President Xi Jinping to announce new agreements between American companies and China, broke longstanding tradition of American presidents holding their Chinese counterparts accountable for the trade imbalance.
Trump also laid out the United States’ new approach to trade, telling the audience that he would no longer pursue multi-national trade agreements “that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.”
“I will make bilateral trade agreements with any Indo-Pacific nation that wants to be our partner and that will abide by the principles of fair and reciprocal trade,” Trump said without directly mentioning TPP.
Attendees in the room for Trump’s remarks applauded his call for world leaders to focus on their individual economies, but the remarks — made shortly after Trump touched down in Vietnam — show the complications of Trump talking tough on trade in a region that that would have benefited from the broader trade agreement. Vietnamese leaders wanted the United States to stay in the deal, hoping their developing country could benefit from access to American markets.
In a tacit knock on Chinese leaders, Trump said the United States would “no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property.”
“We will confront the destructive practices of forcing businesses to surrender their technology to the state, and forcing them into joint ventures in exchange for market access,” he said.
Businesses in the United States have long complained about China failing to honor intellectual property rights. Earlier this year, following an executive order from Trump, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer started an investigation into alleged unfair Chinese trade practices.
Xi, speaking at the same APEC event shortly after Trump, did not respond to Trump’s speech, but said economic globalization had become an “irreversible historical trend.”
“Against the backdrop of evolving global developments, economic globalization also faces new adjustments both in form and substance,” he said. “In pursuing economic globalization, we should make it more open, more inclusive, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial to all.”
While Trump may have escalated his rhetoric on trade in Vietnam, he continued the tough talk on North Korea that has defined his time in Asia.
After urging every nation in the region to work to combat the rogue nation’s nuclear ambitions, Trump said that the region “must not be held hostage to a dictator’s twisted fantasies of violent conquest and nuclear blackmail.”