President Donald Trump broke from his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam on Friday to call out a member of the audience who had laughed when he talked of the United States being taken advantage of by countries that had refused to open their markets to U.S. companies.
“For many years, the United States systematically opened our economy with few conditions,” Trump said in the speech. “We lowered or ended tariffs, reduced trade barriers, and allowed foreign goods to flow freely into our country. But while we lowered market barriers, other countries didn’t open their markets to us.”
Trump stopped his speech for a moment to turn to a person seated in the audience who had laughed as he said this, and raised his arm to call attention to the laughter.
"Funny," he said, looking at the unidentified person.
A sound of a few people clapping was heard at this acknowledgement.
"They must have been one of the beneficiaries," Trump said, with more clapping following this.
"What country do you come from, sir?" the president asked pointedly, but then moved on quickly with his speech, seeming to show that while he was taking note of the laughter, he wasn't going to take it too seriously.
But the specter of a representative of an Asian or Pacific Rim nation laughing at the United States' being taken advantage of on trade might not be something most Americans are willing to pass over — in particular given the strong support for Trump's tough talk on trade during the campaign, when he repeatedly hammered U.S. leaders for making bad trade deals that hurt American workers, and brought the hammer down on China, saying, "They’re not our friends."
Americans might remember that some European leaders had a similar reaction to Trump's tough talk in May, when he addressed European leaders at the new NATO headquarters in Brussels.
As Trump was exhorting European nations to contribute a fair share toward their own defense and toward the collective defense of Europe, the camera panned to show three French-speaking leaders whispering and giggling to one another. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel had one hand over his mouth, as a schoolboy does to disguise the fact that his lips were moving, making comments to the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, who stood behind him, with French President Emmanuel Macron listening in and snickering.
In Vietnam, Trump told the audience in no uncertain terms that things are changing, and fast.
"We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore," he said. "I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first."
Trump told the Asian leaders that he was there to offer them a "renewed partnership" with America.
"At the core of this partnership," he said, "we seek robust trade relationships rooted in the principles of fairness and reciprocity. When the United States enters into a trading relationship with other countries, or other peoples, we will, from now on, expect that our partners will faithfully follow the rules, just like we do."
"We expect that markets will be open to an equal degree on both sides," the president continued, "and that private industry, not government planners, will direct investment."
He leveled specific criticism at the World Trade Organization, saying it had treated the U.S. unfairly.
"Countries were embraced by the World Trade Organization, even if they did not abide by its stated principles," Trump said. "Simply put, we have not been treated fairly by the World Trade Organization. Organizations like the WTO can only function properly when all members follow the rules and respect the sovereign rights of every member. We cannot achieve open markets if we do not ensure fair market access. In the end, unfair trade undermines us all."
The APEC summit was held in Vietnam, one of four remaining socialist-communist countries in the world, along with China, Cuba and North Korea. Trump made specific references to government-owned industries.
"We will not make decisions for the purpose of power or patronage," he said. "We will never ask our partners to surrender their sovereignty, intellectual property, or to limit contracts to state-owned suppliers. We will find opportunities for a private sector to work with yours and to create jobs and wealth for us all. We seek strong partners, not weak partners. We seek strong neighbors, not weak neighbors. Above all, we seek friendship, And we don't dream of domination."
He also made references to China's theft of the intellectual property of American companies, estimated to cost close to $600 billion a year.
"We will no longer tolerate the audacious theft of intellectual property," he said. "We will confront the destructive practices of forcing businesses to surrender their technologies to the state and forcing them into joint ventures in exchange for market access."
Asia trade expert Alan Tonelson wrote Friday after the speech on his RealityChek blog that the president was more pointed in his criticism of the WTO than other presidents have been, but that he may be making a mistake in thinking it can be fixed, saying, "the president will be repeating their fundamental mistakes if he believes that the solution to today’s flawed rules-based system is constructing a better rules-based system."
He went on to write that the fundamental problem is that most of the countries in the WTO do not have political or legal systems that are based on the rule of law and do not accept "the economic practices that flow inexorably from them."
Asian economies, he wrote, have "masterminded" product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies — all problems that Trump identified in his speech.
"Far more promising for President Trump to dispense entirely with the idea of rules-based trade systems, whether regional or global," he writes, "and use the nation’s (still) unmatched economic leverage to lay down the rules of access to its market, enforce them unilaterally, and leave other economies free to accept them or seek prosperity without the privilege of doing business with the United States."