Leaders from the world's two biggest economies put Canada and its allies in the position of picking sides in the battle for world influence, as the United States and China outlined different visions for trade and investment on Saturday.
The tit-for-tat tough speeches on the first day of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders summit — bringing together 21 countries that account for 60 per cent of the world's economy — framed the discussion that is expected to carry over Sunday when the leaders gathered here, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, try to hammer out a final agreement on a path forward for trade.
There are no plans at the moment for Trudeau to have a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping — although he has had opportunities to bump into his Chinese counterpart, both in the hallways of the busy summit and at a gala dinner Saturday night.
At the dinner, Trudeau sat next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and spoke about a Pacific Rim trade deal, according to the Prime Minister's Office. Trudeau and Abe will meet again Sunday, where the topic of that trade deal — known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP for short — is likely to come up.
The deal was originally designed to act as a counterbalance to China's growing economic influence in the region. Observers say there is now debate among signatories about whether China should be part of the deal, or the United States should be let back in after President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact.
On Saturday, Trudeau was involved in a safer diplomatic push, meeting with leaders from the Pacific island nations, and spoke about funding infrastructure resilient to the effects of climate change.
"The opportunity that Canada takes very seriously — to work with you on the very specific challenges facing small island developing states, the importance of capital flows and investments in infrastructure — are things that we are happy to sit down with you about," Trudeau said at the start of the meeting.
Baron Waqa, president of Nauru, told Trudeau that tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones have created enormous losses for the economies of smaller island states, while a rising sea level shrinks their territory and increases water salinity that affects their food security.
Waqa said the island leaders want to frame themselves as key players in the Pacific region — both environmentally and economically.
"It is a powerful narrative which we frame ... of our region, away from the enduring narrative of small, isolated and fragile to that of large, connected and strategically important ocean continent," Waqa said.
But even those island nations are being pulled into a geopolitical tug of war between China and the United States.
The two powers have been locked in an ongoing trade dispute over American complaints that Beijing provides deep state subsidies for its businesses. The U.S. has also accused the Chinese of intellectual property theft.
Trump mused Friday that he may not have to forge ahead with tariffs on remaining Chinese imports. His vice-president, though, took a hard line to a gathering of business leaders at the APEC summit, saying there would be no backing down from tariffs until China changed its ways.
"China has taken advantage of the United States for many, many years and those days are over," Mike Pence said.
Speaking just before Pence, Xi called trade protectionism a short-sighted policy doomed to fail and made a call for greater consultation to resolve any issue.
"History has shown that confrontation — whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war or a trade war — will produce no winners," he said.
Trudeau's office said China agreed with Canada about the need for reforms to the World Trade Organization — a group Trump dislikes — when the prime minister met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday in Singapore.
Reforms to the world's trade referee are on the agenda for this APEC meeting in Papua New Guinea, the poorest member of APEC, which received financial help from China and Australia to put on the summit.
China's influence can be seen around the island nation's capital.
Outside a newly opened hotel which hosted Trudeau's first meeting of the day was a fence covered in a red sign with yellow writing promoting Xi's "one-belt, one-road" project to expand trade routes around Asia. The project, which could take decades and cost trillions of dollars to complete, was harshly criticized by Pence and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom Trudeau will meet Sunday.
"If it succeeds ... China will definitely be a world power even more than it currently is," said Lorna Wright, executive director of the Centre for Global Enterprise at York University's Schulich School of Business.
China has spent millions in the host country to help it prepare for the summit, looking to gain some leverage over the island's energy resources.
"They (China) are looking at creating long-term deals and guarantees with these smaller countries to extend their own commercial, military and hegemonic interest," said Shuvaloy Majumdar with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former Conservative government policy adviser.
Papua New Guinea already has one liquefied natural gas pipeline, and there are plans for a second development not far from the capital to tap a reserve originally found by a Canadian company.
LNG exports are a key contributor to the island's economy and locals involved in projects expect to ship more of the product to Asian markets, including China.