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DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump came to a major meeting with Asian countries armed with an awkward message for trading partners: no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Trump on Friday pledged to end years of "chronic trade abuses" that he said have plagued the U.S.
"I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it," Trump said in a speech ahead of a summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders. "They did not. But I will."
Trump, who has made re-balancing relations between Asia and the U.S. a central plank of his "America First" policy, promised to boost "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."
But the U.S. would no longer be taken "advantage of" by nations operating in their own self-interest, said Trump, who is in Vietnam on the fourth leg of an 11-day trip through the region.
Not that Trump blames other countries.
Reiterating comments made in China on Thursday, Trump said he wasn't calling out other nations for trading in ways that hurt America. If they are able to get away with those deals, he said, "they are just doing their jobs."
Gone are the days of "large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty, and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible," added Trump.
The speech repeated the reasons Trump walked away from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement talks, and was a reminder of his belief that bilateral deals, not multilateral ones, were the best way to do business with the U.S.
The deal, pushed hard by the administration of former President Barack Obama, was essentially an attempt to create a single market for the U.S. and 11 other countries that border the Pacific Ocean, including Canada, Mexico and Chile.
Despite taking a cordial and conciliatory tone in Beijing a day earlier, Trump touched down in Vietnam ready to take on his Chinese counterparts, if not by name, by calling out what he said were their unfair trade practices.
Product dumping, currency manipulation and predatory polices caused "enormous distortions in commerce," Trump said.
The president's harsh words Friday matched the hard-line tone he struck throughout the 2016 campaign. He once remarked that China was “raping” the United States on trade and vowed to take them to task on the issue if elected.
His softened stance in Asia this week marked a stark contrast from a year ago — but it also showed Trump’s willingness to speak diplomatically to President Xi Jinping's face but then lambast China's trade practices to a different audience a day later.
Trump's message may have been abrupt, but it didn't stop the audience from giving Trump a standing ovation as he walked off stage. The same sea of dark suit coats and white dress shirts craned their necks and raised their cell phones to capture the president, applauding the strongly worded message — however complicated it might make the region's economic future.
Trump's approach on trade was very different to Xi's, who later said in a speech that globalization was an irreversible trend and came out in support for multilateral trade deals.
Xi drew loud applause when he called for a "multilateral trading regime" and progress toward a free-trade area in the region.
"We should continue to foster an open economy that benefits all. Openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind. We, the Asia-Pacific economies, know this only too well from our own development experience," he said.
China's economy grew to the world's second-largest after it opened itself up to more trade and investment following decades of isolation. APEC, which is made up of 21 Pacific Rim member economies and promotes free trade, has been convulsed by the changes under Trump.