China's Xi defends free markets as key to world's prosperity

Chinese President Xi Jinping issued an impassioned defense Wednesday of free markets' ability to combat economic uncertainty as he sought allies amid his nation's worsening trade dispute with the United States.

In a speech to lawmakers in Spain, where Xi is on a state visit before attending the Group of 20 leaders' summit in Argentina, the Chinese president said the world is facing "instability, uncertainty and hot topics without precedents in our history."

"I think we are at a crossroads," Xi said. "In economic terms, we need to decide if we are going to follow the economic globalization and free market or if we are going to choose unilateralism and protectionism."

Xi then called on the international community to unite to find consensus, and asked Spain to join hands in "defending peace and prosperity in the world."

Over the last year, China and the U.S. have leveled a series of tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of imports from one another. Both countries' leaders, Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump, are expected to meet for talks over dinner Saturday evening in Buenos Aires.

But Xi's two-day visit to Spain, the fourth-largest economy in Europe's 19-nation eurozone, is presenting the Chinese leader with the opportunity to charm a country that has traditionally avoided confrontation with Beijing.

Spain, which is in the middle of an uneven economic recovery that is showing signs of wearing off, is also keen on getting Chinese contracts for its companies in China and reciprocal investment.

Top officials, however, said Spain wasn't officially endorsing Xi's modern Silk Road initiative despite references to it in a joint declaration.

The "One Belt, One Road," a global multi-billion-dollar infrastructure loan initiative that many developing countries have embraced and that richer countries view with wariness, aims to be a platform for peace and prosperity, Xi said Wednesday in Madrid.

The Spanish government says it's interested instead in exploring with China joint projects in third countries, especially in Africa and Latin America.

For Xulio Rios, an expert on Chinese politics and author of a book on Xi's leadership, Spain is benefiting from receiving more Chinese tourists, students and property buyers, but Beijing is the side currently driving the two countries' relations.

"The Chinese government is laying the foundations for possibly benefiting in the future if Spain becomes a stronger voice in Europe once it fully recovers from the economic crisis," Rios said.

Xi, who arrived Tuesday afternoon in Madrid, reviewed Spain's guard of honor on Wednesday with King Felipe VI, as China's First Lady Peng Liyuan and Queen Letizia of Spain observed from a platform at the entrance of the Royal Palace in the Spanish capital.

The honors continued in Madrid's City Hall, where Xi received golden keys to the city, and then at the country's Senate, where Xi said China wants to provide wider access to foreign products, importing $10 trillion worth of goods over the next five years.

"We will make efforts to streamline access to our market, improve the investment climate, increase intellectual property protection and voluntarily increase the opening to the exterior," he said.

Xi also met Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and both presided over the signing of around 20 government and business agreements, including a deal to export on-the-bone legs of Iberian ham to the Chinese market.

The Chinese leader follows his two-day visit to Spain by flying to Argentina on Thursday for a G-20 leaders' summit the next day. He will then visit Panama and Portugal.