Is The Trump Era Really The Xi Era?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On February 17, China’s Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping announced what he called the “two guidances.” Beijing should now “guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonably new world order,” Xi said in an important national security meeting, and “guide the international community to jointly maintain international security.” Those are the most assertive public statements Xi has made so far about China’s role in shaping the international system. As Trump declares that Washington’s new strategy is an isolationist “America First,” is Beijing moving away from a reactive foreign policy strategy? If so, how will—and how should—Beijing try to shape the new world order? —The Editors


Since Xi Jinping’s elevation to power in 2012, Chinese scholars at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center have been discussing their concept of a “new international order.” While China acknowledges that it has benefited enormously from the post-WWII international order, the rules of the existing order were made without it at the table. Now that China is more powerful, it wants greater influence, and to reform the system to better suit its interests. To this end, Chinese experts say that the country is beginning to take a more proactive approach to foreign affairs, and shifting from a focus of integrating into the international system to shaping it. This idea is not necessarily a “Trump phenomenon.” Indeed, during the Obama administration, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt, One Road initiative in this vein.

Xi’s remarks at the seminar on national security were more or less in keeping with this trend. He said that China’s goal is not to replace the existing order but to play a more proactive role in “guiding” and reforming the international system. Whereas in the past, China’s foreign policy was primarily defined by what China opposed —i.e. hegemony, interference, and aggression—going forward Chinese scholars say it will be defined by what China supports. This raises the question: what are the changes or new norms that China would like to see guide a new international order?

On the one hand, nervousness about Trump may be pushing China to defend the rules and norms that the U.S. has for years hoped it would embrace. Xi’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January was less a signal of China’s desire to supplant U.S. leadership, and more an expression of China’s reluctant willingness to defend globalization and other international efforts in which China now has a stake, like global trade and climate change. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Liz Economy recently pointed out China has a long way to go before it can credibly be seen as the defender or leader of globalization. Moreover, Beijing has yet to demonstrate an interest or capacity to lead on costly, protracted international security challenges. In making the case for globalization, China sees an opportunity to defend its domestic economic and security interests and burnish its international image.

At the same time, China’s leaders recognize the void created by President Trump’s questioning of America’s traditional global leadership role, and are beginning to fill it. As the United States withdraws from the trade agreement the Trans-Pacific Partnership and awaits the appointment of key policymakers who will help set the vision for the new administration’s approach to the Asia-Pacific, China is moving forward with its own agenda. Even if President Trump’s Asia policy comes to reflect relative continuity with the frameworks of past U.S. administrations, this will not be a sufficient substitute for strong U.S. leadership on the global stage. The strength and power of our alliances and partnerships depends on America’s clout around the world. In the absence of U.S. global leadership, there will be more room for Xi’s China to step in.

Over the past 25 years, there have been three major changes in the world order: the Soviet Union has disappeared; U.S. economic output has shrunk from one-third of the world total at the turn of the century to roughly one-fifth; and China has risen.

In areas such as manufacturing, international trade, foreign currency reserve, energy consumption and pollutant emission, China is already a quasi-superpower. Much of this comes from globalization. Due to China’s low wages and willingness to suffer pollution over the past three decades, it has successfully attracted a large volume of foreign investment and technology transfers, and has built itself into a world-class economic engine.

Yes, China’s economy is only roughly 60 percent of the size of the United States, per official exchange rate, while its per capita GDP remains less than 1/6 of the United States’. By most measures, the United States is the sole superpower, and will remain so for at least the next one or two decades. But the world order is in fact changing, and China is seeking a more prominent role.

The world needs new leaders for international norm, and China has offered its leadership globally before. For example, China’s heroic role during World War II led to its permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. In the 1950s, China and India jointly codified the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, a leading global campaign of de-colonization. In the 1960’s, China help build international support for the American civil rights movement. And in the 1970s, China vehemently condemned apartheid in South Africa. Since Beijing launched its reform and opening movement in the late 1970s, China has accumulated a vast amount of development resources, both financial and technology, and it is now ready to export them to help shape a fairer and more secure world.

Obviously, globalization affects China, both positively and negatively. Still, China needs further growth through globalization. Moreover, China has to improve its own development model to earn more respect from the world community.

That said, President Xi Jinping’s notion of “two guidances” indicates China’s increasing willingness to shape an improved world order and international security framework. This is likely to be accepted, as long as China partners with other powers—including the United States. On the one hand, the United States will never relinquish its leadership. Sooner or later the Trump type of “America First” will swing back to a more traditional internationalism, due to its strong domestic checks and balances. On the other hand, the world is not currently ready to accept a China-centric world order. If China maintains a humble while ambitious stance, it could reemerge as a major global player.

China has been playing an increasingly important global role since before Trump took office. For the past few decades, China has been the main engine for global economic growth. Moreover, China is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping, and has recently launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road initiative to help build regional connectivity and development.

The U.S. should applaud such greater roles being played by China: recall that in 2005, Robert Zoellick, then U.S. deputy secretary of state, urged China to become a responsible stakeholder; or that in 2014, then U.S. President Barack Obama called China a “free rider.” If these are truly the concerns for Americans, then Chinese leaders are addressing their concerns.

That said, it is also inevitable for China to play a larger role, given that China has become the world’s second largest economy, the largest trading nation, and retains its position as the world’s most populous country.

From their own experience, many Americans interpret China’s growing role as leading to China’s regional and world dominance. Some politicians even imagine that China would do exactly what the United States did in the late 19th century, and snatch large chunks of territory from countries like Mexico.

That won’t happen. Unlike the unilateral United States, China favors multilateralism. And in the United States, the rhetoric for preserving the U.S.-led world order often means to sustain U.S. global dominance. But that is unrealistic – not only because of the rise of China, but because of the rise of other previously ignored nations as well. A new report by the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that by 2040, the E7 (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Turkey) could be roughly double the size of the G7.

China is not interested in leading the world alone. Moreover, it is still a developing nation. Divide the sheer size of the economy by 1.3 billion people and China’s per capital GDP still ranks around 80th in the world.

In many ways, China is still learning how to play its international role. The 45 years of US-China relations since Richard Nixon’s historic trip in February 1972 show that nations with different political systems and ideologies can work together for their common interest—and the common interest of the world. That requires wisdom, courage and vision from their leaders.

As an established world power, the United States should be more accommodating to China’s rise. The Trump administration should not inherit the mindset that the Obama administration had exhibited on AIIB, where it saw the regional initiative as a bid by China to gain geopolitical influence.

The future of the world should not be about Chinese dominance or U.S. dominance, China-led or U.S.-led. It should be about collective leadership.

Xi Jinping is clearly taking advantage of Trump’s America First and potentially isolationist policy to try to elevate China as the new moral authority that can guide (yindao) the world, in two ways: by creating a new, more open, and more equitable world order, and by establishing a new, supposedly safer—although ill-defined—international security system. What is most striking is that China no longer seems satisfied with shouldering more international responsibilities. Now, it wants to take the lead: and it expects other countries to follow.

Xi’s initiative also underscores the growing attractiveness not only of China’s economy but also the China model. Many developing countries dream of imitating China’s success story, and would not object to instilling a stronger dose of authoritarianism to speed up their economic development. And quite a number of developed nations—particularly within the European Union, because of many of its member states’ antipathy towards Trump—are tempted to move closer to China, and to start establishing new international norms with her.

Can China deliver?

There are at least two problems with Xi’s proposal: the first is that the model of international order and security that he is proposing is not as open, transparent, and inclusive as it looks at first glance. Moreover, there is a large distance between what Xi professes and how China behaves as a trade partner and W.T.O. member. In the last few years, China’s non-trade barriers have increased instead of decreased, foreign investors are less and less welcome in China, and powerful C.C.P.-led state-owned enterprises still control, and in some case monopolize, significant chunks of the economy.

The second problem is that Xi is trying to restore a neo-Westphalian order which gives sovereign states a prominent role. The world-order that he proposes is a state-centered and state-controlled order, not a society-based and people- accountable one. Beijing wants to impose this model throughout the world, in areas including counter-terrorism, and cybercrime, and use these tools to crush political opposition or separatist forces. Although many governments, particularly in the developing world may be tempted by these proposals, will Western nations go along?

Finally, despite the uncertainties surrounding the future and longevity of the Trump administration, the United States may reveal itself less isolationist and protectionist than it currently seems. And U.S. leadership may prove resurgent: after all, the United States will remain the top economy and military power in the world for a long time, especially as China’s economy slows. The United States is a much more established and credible security guarantor that China is or will be tomorrow, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. And in the longer run, its political system is more resilient that the C.C.P.-led, still largely opaque and allergic to reform Chinese political system.

Xi’s China is full of ideas and is not any more shy to make them known, but look at its deeds, not its words, and look at its domestic problems, not only its outside strengths.

International leadership depends on social recognition. Threatening or buying off other countries can achieve a lot, but coercion and transnationalism are not sufficient tools for a great power that wishes to transform itself into a global leader. China needs acceptance from its peers in order to “guide the international community” to jointly “maintain international security” and “build a more just and reasonable world order.” A strategy for international leadership is more likely to succeed if China manages to stay clear from a number of pitfalls that otherwise might hurt its legitimacy.

First, some other countries at occasion perceive that China disregards the international rule-based order. China’s refusal to participate in the South China Sea Arbitration case brought by the Philippines got support from a number of friendly states, but also led to widespread worries about what the decision says about Beijing’s general attitude toward international rules and norms. Few states are fully compliant with the rule-based order, and a great power might get away with more than others might. Nonetheless, even the American superpower saw its legitimacy plunge when it ignored international opinion and invaded Iraq in 2003. If China creates the perception that it stands above international law, it risks alienating democratic and non-democratic countries alike.

Second, smaller countries sometimes feel that China acts in an overbearing manner toward them. A retired senior Singaporean diplomat, for example, argues that, “On occasion, Chinese diplomats even seem to have perversely gone out of their way to accentuate rather than assuage anxieties. … [their] behavior is … illustrating the passive-aggressive style and the positing of false dilemmas to force acceptance of China’s inherent superiority as the natural normative order of East Asian international relations”. Non-great powers might be more likely to recognize Chinese leadership if they feel that Beijing does not look down on them.

Third, the Chinese leadership is at times exceedingly sensitive to international criticism. To protest Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, for example, Beijing in effect shut down political relations with Oslo for over six years. America’s attitude might in fact offer some helpful clues for China. Although the United States receives so much condemnation that “anti-Americanism” has engendered its own research program, the U.S. government does not throw a fit every time someone points out its imperfections. A great power will attract more attention and thus more disapproval. It might facilitate Chinese legitimacy if the leadership in Beijing finds ways that are more constructive to handle foreign criticism.

A majority of the international society would probably welcome a China that exercises a self-confident and responsible global leadership. Without some behavioral adjustments, however, it might be difficult for Beijing to gain wide acceptance for its aspired status.