China thrusting itself forward as a leader and front-runners are falling back.
At his inauguration President Trump reframed the American mission from leadership of a global rules-based system in the interests of all, to ‘America first’. Meanwhile the leader of Communist China rebranded his prickly protectionist power as the defender of globalisation and shared values. So after in this upside down new world, how stands China’s bid for global leadership?
Trump confirms socialism is the way’. As Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhang Jun put it in a discussion with foreign journalists: “If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”
A bitter row over the size of the crowd at the Trump inauguration, followed by street protests the next day, underlined the divisions of the world’s superpower even at the very moment which was supposed to heal. For China’s citizens, brought up to see street protests as dangerous, this was another symptom of dysfunction in a political system they’ve been taught to distrust.
Among business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President Xi talked the language of global togetherness, but back home his Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, lost no time in declaring the bankruptcy of Western politics.
“The emergence of capitalism’s social crisis is the most updated evidence to show the superiority of socialism and Marxism,” it said. Mr. Xi made antiprotectionism comments aimed at the US when he spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This ideological inoculation is invaluable for Xi Jinping ahead of the vital Communist Party Congress which will clarify China’s leadership line-up for the next five years.
The inauguration of a billionaire celebrity promising to make America great again through building walls confirms the view of some in Beijing that the United States is in terminal decline, and that this is a moment of opportunity for China.
President Xi’s favourite slogans are the “China Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”. But it’s all happening faster than his predecessors could have imagined. It’s less than two decades since China fully entered a US-led world of global capitalism. When China joined the World Trade Organization, it complained bitterly about living under rules made by the US and its friends, while fully expecting to live under those rules for decades to come.
But November’s American presidential election finished what the 2008 financial crisis had begun: a shift in worldview..
China remains unchallenged in Asia…
Asia is the key testing ground where the US stands in the way of China’s ambitions. Since the end of World War Two, Washington has insisted that the US is in Asia for the good of all and invested decades in diplomacy and defence to maintain the liberal international order. On the campaign trail, Mr Trump expressed impatience with that investment. And having withdrawn from the TPP, the Trump administration will have to find a new way to nurture key allies and partners in the region and to reassure them that ‘America first’ does not mean everyone else last. But at the same moment, China’s diplomats and bankers are stepping up their efforts and their focus does not waver. Last year, Beijing turned an international legal defeat over the South China Sea into a diplomatic triumph by charming and disarming the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In the Trump era, it has other US allies in its sights. Only this week, Thailand confirmed funding for the purchase of a Chinese submarine.
China becomes the voice of Globalisation
Meanwhile Mr Xi’s outward facing message, that China wants a world of fair trade and globalisation, got a boost this week from several quarters, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The Chinese-led development bank said it is set for expansion. It currently has nearly 60 members and now says another 25 are likely to join this year. Two years ago when the AIIB was launched, it became a symbol of the pulling power of China’s money and nimble diplomacy when US allies lined up to join despite strong US opposition. This week, AIIB president Jin Liqun told journalists, it was China’s turn to contribute to the world: “China needs to do something that can help it be recognised as a responsible leader.” One of President Trump’s first acts in office was to sign an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact which the Obama administration had insisted would cement US leadership in Asia. “Protection will lead to greater strength”, said Mr. Trump. But in an open letter, outgoing US ambassadors in the region disagreed. “Walking away from TPP may be seen by future generations as the moment America chose to cede leadership to others in this part of the world and accept a diminished role.” Certainly in response to the Trump announcement, US ally and TPP signatory Australia immediately said it hoped to recast the trade agreement without the US, and said China might be invited to join.