President Donald Trump’s vision of an “America First” domestic and foreign policy is sowing seeds of confusion and concern. His administration alternates between hawkishness on one hand—against ISIS or regarding the South China Sea—and isolationism on the other—pulling out of TPP and denigrating NATO. Though President Trump had a fairly positive meeting with Theresa May last Friday, this week his trade advisor accused Germany of exploiting the Euro. Trump further provoked global confusion and outrage with the issuance of a controversial executive order on immigration.
Sensing an opportunity, President Xi Jinping is positioning China to fill the power vacuum the United States is leaving behind. At the World Economic Forum, in quite the reversal of US and Chinese positions, Xi presented himself as a champion of globalization and was warmly greeted by elites concerned by the rising tide of nationalism.
To take full advantage of this opening, Yan Xuetong offers Xi a roadmap for establishing itself as a global leader: expand China’s regional trade agreement, reconsider its prohibition on alliances, and become more welcoming to immigrants.
Yet as China’s path ahead is bright, it is hardly assured, as discussants at a recent Council event about the Asian Century made clear. As Richard Fontaine and Mira Rapp-Hooper write, “there’s no small irony in the portrayal of China as a bastion of economic openness, let alone a pillar of the noneconomic elements of the liberal order.” Martin Wolf also cautions that “China cannot replace the United States,” as that requires it cooperate with Europe and other Asian powers. And the threat of a trade war with the United States certainly makes China nervous.
So the only prediction to make with confidence is that the coming months will be a volatile and unpredictable time for US-China relations and for each country’s global position. This Week’s Reads shed light on the issues and dynamics at play in China’s potential rise.
Richard Fontaine and Mira Rapp-Hooper/The Wall Street Journal
The audience at Davos received President Xi’s speech on globalization warmly given fears that populist opposition will be a new feature of the world order. “Yet there’s no small irony in the portrayal of China as a bastion of economic openness, let alone a pillar of the noneconomic elements of the liberal order,” write Richard Fontaine and Mira Rapp-Hooper. Its actions in the South China Sea, at the WTO, and on human rights all contravene global norms. Given this record, perhaps Davos should be a warning to the United States that it should not cede its place. It would be better for the world to “stick with the American version” of global leadership.
Martin Wolf/Financial Times
That President Trump and President Xi appear to be switching the US and Chinese role on the world stage is astounding, writes Martin Wolf. Xi’s Davos speech presented him as a champion of globalization, while Trump is focused on “America First.” Yet in going through potential Trump trade and tax policies, Wolf notes this rhetoric reads like a declaration of economic warfare. Even though the United States is economically powerful, it may not gets its way. Given China cannot replace the United States, the likely outcome is a “trade policy free-for-all.”
Jane Perlez and Chris Buckley/The New York Times
While the US pullout of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal seems like an opportunity for China to exert greater leadership in Asia, the threat of a trade war simultaneously makes China nervous. This economic uncertainty plus Trump’s rhetoric on the South China Sea are making for a volatile and unpredictable time for China, write Jane Perlez and Chris Buckley. Though no one knows what’s coming, “for now, at least, the increased contention with Washington is likely to strengthen Mr. Xi’s political hand at home by rallying public and elite support against a foreign threat.”
Yan Xuetong/The New York Times
Both China and the United States seek to restore their countries to the top position in the world, writes Yan Xuetong, but this leads to a zero-sum game. Yan counsels China to double-down on its regional trade leadership and bring Australia and South Korea into its fold, to end its policy against formal alliances, and to open China up to more high-skilled labor from abroad — including the United States, among other policy options. “Confrontation will be the core of these two giants’ relationship for the foreseeable future.”
Robert Kagan/Brookings Institution
Robert Kagan says that the world order is “fragmenting under the pressure of systemic economic stresses, growing tribalism and nationalism, and a general loss of confidence in established international and national institutions.” President Trump will have to decide whether he is willing to “accept the consequences” of abandoning the traditional orientation of US leadership — pursuing narrow US interests, focusing mainly on terrorism, turning his back on US leadership in the global economy, and ceasing to work with traditional allies.
Ian Bremmer puts President Trump in a triumvirate with Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan — leaders who have dismissed elites and establishment critics and are intent on dominating the political lives of their countries. “The world has grown accustomed to the impulsive leadership of Putin and Erdogan; their American counterpart has now arrived,” says Bremmer. Trump is not an isolationist but a unilateralist like them; this is the new world order.
William McGurn/The Wall Street Journal
Critics of President Trump’s “American First” policy should be careful not to equate Trump in 2017 with the 1941 Charles Lindbergh-led movement of the same name. The Trump who put Winston Churchill’s bust back in the Oval Office isn’t an isolationist, as evidenced by his focus on ISIS, China’s island-building in the South China Sea, and support for Israel, not to mention his selection of Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense, writes William McGurn. Rather it is Democrats who are the party of “lead from behind.”
Andrew Ross Sorkin/The New York Times
“As corporate executives around the globe try to understand the implications of the Trump administration on their businesses, they seem to be having an almost bipolar reaction: a euphoric sense that regulations and taxes could soon be lowered … yet a simultaneous anxiety that they could become a target of one of the president’s Twitter tirades,” says Andrew Ross Sorkin. Companies are positioning themselves to appease the administration, or at the very least, not rile Trump. It will be important to watch this “ambivalent” relationship.