China Rethinks Its Global Role in the Age of Trump

Beijing is getting more involved as the U.S. turns inward. That’s not quite the same as world leadership.

On the world stage.

Photographer: VCG/Getty Images

In his short time in office, President Donald Trump has done a good job of making China great again. His isolationist rhetoric and unilateral actions — such as pulling out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — have made it much easier for China to advance its claim to global leadership, as dismayed U.S. allies and partners proclaim that the U.S. can no longer be “completely depended on,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it. In stark contrast to Trump, China has reaffirmed its commitments to free trade, globalization and the battle against climate change.

China’s case is made more plausible by its markedly increased involvement in what is known as “global governance.” China is no longer the free-rider on the Western-built global system that it had long been. President Xi Jinping has received numerous expert briefings and has convened Politburo meetings on global governance. As a result, China has substantially increased involvement in areas such as climate change, global health, international peacekeeping, anti-piracy, anti-corruption, disaster relief, economic governance, development aid, energy security and multilateralism.

In part, this reflects Xi’s own “China Dream” for his nation’s place in the world. Xi expertly staked out China’s leadership potential at the World Economic Forum in Davos in February in a speech that attracted much international attention. China’s new activism is also due to its sensitivity to foreign criticism for not acting like a true great power (it has a psychological obsession with being seen as one), as well as China’s huge financial wherewithal and the increased professionalism of Chinese bureaucracies.

These actions do suggest that China may be ready to fill some of the void in global governance left by an increasingly isolationist America. But there are at least four reasons to question whether China can be an effective global leader.

First, while China has been an enormous beneficiary of the Western-dominated global system since the country began its economic reforms in 1978, its leaders have for six decades expressed discontent with the system’s inherent “inequality.” While not seeking to overthrow or replace the existing system, Chinese leaders do want to decrease the outsized role of the West and North, while increasing the representation and decision-making clout of the East and South. Where existing institutions cannot accommodate such changes, China has spearheaded a set of alternative ones such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China is thus a “revisionist” power: It seeks not to defend, but to revise the structures and procedures of global governance to reflect what it sees as the real distribution of power in today’s world, although still upholding the existing system in the main.

Second, China is neither willing nor able to dispatch military forces to quell threats to global security. China has an extreme aversion to the use of force and to transgressing state sovereignty. Thus the world should not look to Beijing for help in overturning distasteful regimes or countering transnational aggression, at least not outside the United Nations system (China is a significant contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations and endorses the U.N.’s “Right to Protect” statute for preventing crimes against humanity.)

Third, China’s soft power is seriously lacking. It is far from certain that the country possesses the moral leadership, based on universal values, to become a truly global leader. To be sure, China deserves admiration for its economic and social development, as well as for its 3,000-year civilization. China’s stunning economic growth is the envy of the world, and its urban planning, public health and education systems are all commendable.

But does Beijing possess the moral standing and messages to inspire and lead a diverse world? Its human-rights record and political system only inspire other autocrats. At its root, China’s problem is that it is sui generis — a unique country whose domestic attributes do not travel well beyond its borders.

Until China develops values that appeal universally, it will lack one of the core features of global leadership. It also needs to heed its own admonitions about equality and treat its neighbors and other states without coercion or intimidation.

Finally, for a nation to be a global leader, it must view the world in positive-sum terms. It must truly believe that the well-being of others is in one’s own national interests and that contributing to “public goods” enhances one’s own strength. This is what Trump blatantly rejects in his Hobbesian “America First” vision. Until very recently, China had also long practiced a “China First” global policy.

One senses that China is now in the midst of this conceptual transition. But centuries of isolation, as well as many deeply rooted domestic forces, inhibit its thinking and actions in the world.

On balance, China’s role as a global power very much remains a work-in-progress. The country isn’t necessarily ready for prime time; the vacuum Trump has created is forcing it into the spotlight sooner than its leaders had anticipated or planned for. Sometimes nations rise to the occasion, as the U.S. did following World War II. Unless China can overcome its limitations, however, it isn’t likely to become the world’s preeminent power, leaving instead its long-sought preference: a multipolar world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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