China is not the new America, and will never be
Derwin Pereira says the US is chaotic, fractious and ultimately self-correcting. That is its great strength and the reason it should not be written off as a fading power, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to undermine US authority
China is the new America, it appears, in a world turning upside down. Consider the most obvious of trends. The United States set up the liberal capitalist international order after the second world war to protect its interests and those of its allies from an expansionist Soviet Union and its socialist partners. The cold war was a contest between those contending visions of the global good.
Today, however, even as a new cold war erupts between America and China, the United States is abrogating its historical role. It is subverting the liberal international order by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawing from the Paris accord on climate change, and now starting a punitive tariff war with not only China but also American allies and friends.
As if on cue, Beijing is stepping into Washington’s shoes. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative are the economic prongs of Chinese diplomacy. Its less benign prongs include the militarisation of the South China Sea and efforts to create naval access to countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
Chinese soft power is adding a third dimension to its economic and military rise. Hardly anyone still sees China as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist power, repressive at home and dismissive of the status quo abroad (although these ills do remain in contemporary Chinese domestic and foreign policy).
Instead, today’s China has rebranded itself as a neo-Confucian entity in which rapid growth has enabled the state to re-inherit ancient traditions of obeisance to the government, its organs and its personnel. This magic formula of economic growth and authoritarian stability appeals to dozens of “China wannabes” abroad.
Watch: A an aerial view of China’s militarisatiion of the South China Sea
The US once led in each of these kinds of power. America’s powerful military, particularly its nuclear deterrence, kept a land-hungry Soviet Union at bay. Its economic prowess underpinned global progress.
In spite of its flaws, its liberal democracy was a model for states to emulate if they wished to empower their citizens as responsible shareholders of the nation. That America is disappearing as President Donald Trump embarks on putting America first, at the expense of a world where many had seen it as a role model.
There is almost a sense of déjà vu as America retreats into the lengthening shadow of a rising China, as once Europe did into America’s.
Yet, it is necessary to preserve a sense of perspective. To put matters bluntly, world history will not unravel beyond a certain point. China is only partly the new America. The America that exists will not pivot out of global affairs but will make a comeback. The rise of China is not bound to displace the United States.
The Harvard scholar Joseph Nye gave several reasons for this in a recent article. “As for the rise of China, contrary to current pessimism, the US will retain important power advantages that will last longer than even an eight-year presidency, should Mr Trump be reelected,” he wrote.
The reasons range from demography, energy and technology to the role of the dollar, geographical advantages and the alliance system, he added.
I would cite one more reason.
Trump’s unilateralist impulses have brought his country into an uncharted area of international relations that is potentially explosive.
His dismissive attitude to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), for example, threatens America’s relations with Europe in a way that can only strengthen Russia, an outcome many European nations would fear.
It is simply unbelievable that Washington would wish to embolden Moscow at the expense of long-lasting American allies.
Beyond a certain point, those allies would have to create a common European defence mechanism that lets Nato recede into irrelevance, thus reducing their dependence on the United States and hence their stake in an American-centric world order. How could that conceivably be in US interests?
The current situation, thus, cannot last forever. Apart from a media that takes its job as the fourth estate – after the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – with existential seriousness, America is blessed with institutions that act as countervailing forces on one another.
Watch: White House in crisis over Trump aide’s guilty plea on hush-money payment
In “harmonious” countries, leaders of institutions gather deferentially under the edifice of autocratic power until the whole structure comes crashing down on them, as it did in the Soviet Union.
In “disharmonious” countries, the whole point of exercising political or economic power is to prevent the misappropriation of national power. There is no gathering, for power is dispersed and fractious.
There is no country more disharmonious than the United States. The natural contentiousness of its people reflects a deeply ingrained democratic distrust of oligarchic authority.
Admittedly, there is great concentration of day-to-day power in the hands of politicians, business leaders and opinion makers. But they all have a shelf life determined by the patience of the American people.
It is difficult to see that tradition lose traction in the US and become the norm in its challengers, whether China or Russia.
The truth is that the world is going through an interregnum. The old order is disappearing, but the new one is yet to appear. In such circumstances, it is normal to see double, to believe that China is the new America.
Yet, that double vision will disappear once normality returns to international relations, and America and China resume their contributions to a durable world order.
Derwin Pereira is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy