With America in retreat and China on the rise, is a cold war on the way?
Chi Wang says while Trump’s isolationist approach to international relations sets him far apart from Xi, with his ambitious plans to expand China’s reach, the two are strikingly similar in one aspect: their need for power
President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal. This is another addition to a line of international agreements from which the US has withdrawn since Trump took office, joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement. It is an indication of isolationist behaviour not usually exhibited by international leaders and community members.
In response, other countries have begun pulling away from the United States in kind. The president of the European Commission responded to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal with heavy criticism, going so far as to say the EU should “replace” the US in world leadership. The US, he said, has “lost vigour and because of it, in the long term, influence.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the commissioner’s statement, adding that the EU could no longer rely on the US for “protection” and that European countries would be drawn closer together.
No country can have power and influence if it does not have trust or allies. Trump’s “America first” decisions are undermining American credibility, not making it stronger. This creates a void in international leadership.
Certainly European leaders like Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron would like to step into that role of Western leadership. But a gap in Western leadership – traditionally balanced against Asia-Pacific power like China or Japan – leaves a space for another country to expand its own influence, not just in the region, but also in the world. And as American power wanes, Chinese power grows.
After years of rapid growth, China’s economy has not yet hit a debt ceiling that is dangerous to expanding economies. While the People’s Liberation Army is not yet a fully modernised military, rapid gains are being made in that arena, too. President Xi Jinping has set a goal to have a fully modernised military by 2035. With the largest population on Earth and its second-largest defence budget, China could make serious military advances in that time.
Last month, China staged a massive naval exercise in the South China Sea. This can only be taken as a warning or sign of aggression towards Taiwan and regional powers like the US, which has trade routes and diplomatic relations with Asean nations.
China is not known for its blue-water naval capabilities. That it now feels bold enough to put on a show suggests China is confident in its power and influence to fill the void the US is leaving behind.
With the inclusion of Xi’s political philosophy and abolition of presidential term limits in the Chinese constitution, Xi has established himself as the most powerful Chinese leader of the modern era since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He has made little secret of his desire to expand Chinese influence under his leadership, and he is ready to move where the US cannot or will not.
The “Belt and Road Initiative” is one example of this: a bid to expand regional connectivity and establish trade routes beyond Western countries’ influence. In his speeches to the Chinese people and the Communist Party, Xi’s underlying message is always clear: China can be a leader in the Asia-Pacific against the encroaching power of Western countries.
America’s growing isolationism, under Trump’s unpredictable leadership, serves only to reinforce China as a more stable and reliable leader both in the region and worldwide.
Xi is certainly doing his best to make sure this is true. Despite Trump’s claims that he and his “maximum pressure” campaigns against North Korea are the reason Kim Jong-un decided to enter peace talks, Beijing has been involved with Pyongyang almost every step of the way. In March, Kim made a secret trip to Beijing before his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Bypassing Western media until after the fact, Kim’s meeting with Xi was the North Korean leader’s first official state visit abroad since he took power in 2011.
Xi then had another chance to emphasise China’s role on the peninsula in a second meeting with Kim in the Chinese coastal city of Dalian. This shows North Korea still values – or even needs – China’s support and advice. China has never been pleased to see US forces in South Korea so close to Chinese territory. Xi will not let the US supersede China on an issue so close to Chinese borders.
There is irony here. China would not be the superpower it is now without American support. President Richard Nixon’s efforts to engage China with the outside world, followed by president Jimmy Carter’s support for Chinese economic reform, played crucial roles in China’s rapid modernisation. China has now moved past those days – even, perhaps, forgotten them.
During my time as a professor at Georgetown University, I observed a change in Chinese students’ attitudes over the years. Students today know little about the help America gave China less than half a century ago. They do not recognise how far their countries and older generations have come, and they are therefore less appreciative of American friendship. I hope in this time of global turmoil, both American and Chinese students can come to understand better the friendship they have shared and should share again.
Trump has tried to take his cue from Xi. After Xi abolished presidential term limits, Trump joked that perhaps he would have to try the same. The difference is that Xi has been adept at consolidating his and China’s power, whereas Trump has not. Xi has encouraged Chinese unity; America is more divided than ever. What the two presidents have in common, however, is a need for power.
It is no breaking news that China is growing daily in influence on the global stage. Since rapprochement with the US in the early 1970s, China’s economy, political power and global influence have been expanding at an unprecedented rate.
However, on the other side of the Pacific, the US – once indisputably acknowledged as the world’s most powerful nation – is dropping in credibility. The US needs to recognise that China is becoming the world’s primary superpower, whether we like it or not; and Chinese students should reach out to Americans in friendship, before the US and China are cold-war-style enemies again.
Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation