China uses meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders to boost regional role with trade, finance pacts

China is trying to boost its status as a regional power during a summit of world leaders by launching a rapid-fire series of trade and finance pacts that might dilute U.S. influence.

Opening Tuesday's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the 21 economies present to push ahead with regional economic integration and other efforts to promote business ties.

"Clarify the goal, the direction, the road map," Xi told the other leaders including President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin. "At an early date, let prospects become reality and make the two sides of the Pacific highly open and integrated."

On the eve of the gathering, Beijing announced a free-trade agreement Monday with South Korea. Also Monday, regulators approved a plan to open Chinese stock markets wider to foreign investors by linking exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That followed the weekend announcement of a $40 billion Chinese-financed fund to improve trade links between Asian economies.

At the summit, China is promoting its own regional free-trade pact, despite U.S. pressure to make progress on other initiatives. It is the first time Beijing has taken the lead in promoting a multinational trade agreement.

The moves reflect Beijing's insistence on having a bigger role in what it sees as U.S.-dominated economic and security structures to reflect China's status as the world's second-biggest economy.

China says its motives are benign. But its growing economic weight as the top trading partner for most of its neighbors from South Korea to Australia could erode U.S. influence.

"We are duty-bound to create and fulfill an Asia-Pacific dream for our people," Xi said Sunday in a speech at a business conference ahead of APEC.

APEC is the first major international gathering in China since Xi took power, and the presence of world leaders gives Beijing a platform to lobby for a bigger leadership role.

On Monday, Xi met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and shared an awkward handshake seen as a gesture toward easing two years of tensions between Asia's biggest economies.

A spat between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea and other issues has raised fears of a military confrontation, which could draw in the United States, Japan's ally. On Friday, the two sides issued a joint statement agreeing to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogues.

Also this year, Beijing joined 20 other Asian countries in launching a regional development bank, despite U.S. objections that it needlessly duplicated the World Bank's work. In May, Xi called for creation of a new Asian structure for security cooperation based on a group that excludes Washington.

On Monday, Obama insisted Washington sees no threat from Beijing's growing economic and political status.

"The United States welcomes the rise of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China," the American leader said in a speech at the business conference.

Still, American officials chafe at Beijing's insistence on promoting its proposed trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

It comes at a time when progress on a U.S.-led initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has stalled. The chief U.S. trade envoy, Michael Froman, said Saturday the two pacts are "not in competition," but he said Beijing should focus on wrapping up a U.S.-Chinese investment treaty and a separate agreement to lower barriers to trade in information technology.

The TPP includes the United States, Japan and 10 other countries, but excludes China. Few details have been released but its promoters say it would reduce or eliminate tariffs on most goods among the member countries. That might hurt China by encouraging member countries to trade more with each other.

China's initiative is much less ambitious and is aimed at reducing conflict among overlapping trade agreements between pairs of Asia-Pacific economies.

The U.S.-Chinese rivalry might help smaller countries in the region by giving them more choice among trade initiatives, economists say. They say, however, that governments are reluctant to take public positions on either pact to avoid antagonizing Beijing or Washington.

On Saturday, APEC trade ministers issued a cautious endorsement of China's initiative. They sent to the leaders' meeting a proposal to launch a study of the plan but held off committing to deadlines or other details.

The Chinese-South Korean trade agreement calls for the two nations to remove tariffs on more than 90 percent of goods over two decades. That includes finance, online commerce and 20 other areas but excludes the sensitive fields of autos and rice. South Korea said it was the first time China has included finance or telecommunications in such an agreement.

Plans to link the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges could help to attract more regional investors. The Hong Kong market has long been open to global investors but most foreigners have been barred until now from China's mainland exchanges.