As trade war bites, China's Xi preaches openness


China has glorious history of being open to the world and the country will only be more open, President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday, in his first public address since trade tensions with the United States spiked last week.

Beijing and Washington are locked in an escalating trade war, with both countries levying tariffs on each other's imports. Just before Xi spoke the government reported surprisingly weaker growth in retail sales and industrial output for April.

China on Monday announced higher tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods, effective June 1, in retaliation for Washington's decision on Friday to raise its own levies on $200 billion in Chinese imports.

Addressing a forum in Beijing organised by China's propaganda ministry, called the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations, Xi made no direct reference to the trade tensions, focusing instead on presenting China as a non-threatening country open to all.

Chinese civilisation is an "open system" that has continuously had exchanges and learned from other cultures, including Buddhism, Marxism and Islam, Xi told the forum.

"Today's China is not only China's China. It is Asia's China and the world's China. China in the future will take on an even more open stance to embrace the world," he added.

No country can stand alone, Xi said, perhaps taking an indirect swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" policy.

"Civilizations will lose vitality if countries go back to isolation and cut themselves off from the rest of the world," Xi added. "The people of Asian countries hope to distance themselves from being closed, and hope that all countries will adhere to the spirit of openness and promote policy communication, connectivity and smooth trade."

Xi offered no new concrete measures to further open China up, aside from proposing an Asia tourism promotion plan, and even on that he gave no details.

Officials have billed the forum as part of a soft power push to put a gentler face on China's growing might, though it only attracted a handful of foreign leaders to attend the opening session where Xi spoke, including the presidents of Greece, Sri Lanka and Singapore.

China has faced pushback for some of its global ambitions, mainly in the West but especially in the United States, where there has been suspicion of Chinese technology, Xi's Belt and Road Initiative to re-create the Old Silk Road, and government-run Confucius Institutes to teach the Chinese language.

China has also faced criticism for its tight cyber controls - though forum organisers unblocked the internet for foreign media - and for a controversial re-education campaign for Muslims in its restive far Western region of Xinjiang.