Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - US President Donald Trump on Friday made a rare appearance at a virtual Asia-Pacific summit, touting his commitment to work towards "peace and prosperity" in the region, as China's Xi Jinping used the forum to counter American protectionism.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering, held virtually this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, brings together leaders from 21 Pacific Rim economies, accounting for about 60 percent of global GDP.
China -- which came into the summit days after scoring a huge trade pact victory -- has become the main driving force behind the grouping after Trump started withdrawing the United States from multilateral bodies.
But Trump made the surprise decision to attend this year's event, after not participating at APEC since 2017, his first year in office -- appearing alongside other leaders via video link.
All of the leaders except one had an official APEC backdrop on their screens, which was blue and featured the enormous, green-domed Malaysian prime minister's office.
The exception was Trump, who appeared with a beige background under the US presidential seal.
A source involved in arranging the summit said Trump refused to use the official backdrop.
Opening for China
Trump's speech during the two-hour event was not open to the media.
The White House said he "reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to building on our unprecedented economic recovery from Covid-19, as well as promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region through strong economic growth".
Analysts said Trump likely decided to appear at APEC this year to present himself as presidential as he pursues legal challenges against the election victory of rival Joe Biden.
His appearance was all the more striking as the United States broke with tradition by failing to send a representative to deliver a public speech at the forum ahead of Friday's official summit.
Trump's turn away from multilateral groupings like APEC has left the floor open for China to write the region's rules of commerce, and Xi used his speech Friday to launch a strident defence of free trade.
"It is important that the Asia-Pacific should remain the bellwether in safeguarding peace and stability, upholding multilateralism, and fostering an open world economy," he said, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
"Free and open trade and investment cannot be achieved overnight."
His remarks will raise eyebrows however in capitals where Beijing has been accused of blocking trade amid diplomatic rows, and using its enormous economy as a bargaining chip to strongarm weaker rivals.
Xi also said China would consider joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership -- a giant regional free trade pact once championed by the United States under Barack Obama -- but abandoned by Trump.
This year's APEC gathering came a week after China and 14 other Asia-Pacific countries signed another free trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will be the world's biggest.
The deal, which excludes the US, has been viewed as a major coup for China and further evidence that Beijing is setting the agenda for global commerce as Washington retreats.
Signatories hope RCEP will help their virus-hit economies on the road to recovery, and many leaders at the APEC forum warned against turning inwards in response to the pandemic.
"We need to trade and invest our way out of the current economic downturn," Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in his opening remarks at the summit.
"We must come together and work constructively towards navigating the region along a path of robust, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery and growth."
At the end of the summit, the leaders released a joint declaration that pledged their determination to work together to recover from the pandemic.
Even agreeing on a statement was progress compared with the leaders' previous summit in 2018, when they were unable to hammer out a joint communique due to escalating tensions between the US and China on trade.
In his speech, Trump "highlighted the global health leadership of the United States, including our successful development of safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines," the White House said.