Xi Jinping’s presidency is going very well. Economically, China is booming. Growth continues to plow forward. The Belt Road Initiative is the most ambitious foreign infrastructure investment program in history. Chinese GDP per capita is set to surpass Russia within a couple years and will continue climbing upwards in the foreseeable future. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened its first overseas base last year in Djibouti. The PLA Navy (PLAN) has become an integral anti-piracy force in the Western Indian Ocean. Beijing’s first aircraft carrier launched six years ago with the second expected to set sail next year, radically reshaping China’s military capabilities. Beijing is speeding forward on both hard and soft power cylinders.
These realities are starker in light of President Trump’s missteps throughout 2017. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) three days into his presidency. The multilateral free trade deal involved twelve nations states and a large portion of aggregate global trade. Regardless of individual issues within the deal, the TPP was a pivotal agreement for extending American soft power and influence. This leaves the 11 other TPP partners adrift, searching for a quasi-TPP replacement. China is not wasting any time filling the vacuum. Beijing is expediting work on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement between 16 East Asian and Oceania states.
U.S. credibility is also eroding. Although President Trump would assume everyone buys into his beguiling statements of “believe me,” few peoples are falling sway. With more late-night tweets and a willingness to break deals and agreements, American partners are finding it harder and harder to understand U.S. foreign policy and how to appropriately act without confidence. Trump is not wholly to blame, however; America’s credibility was faltering under former President Obama as well. Who can forget the chemical weapons redline in Syria that Obama neglected to enforce? Or the Middle East instability due to rushed pullout of Iraq? States are increasingly looking elsewhere for reliable credibility and signaling. China, as the world’s second largest economy, is stepping into the void with investment initiatives and a willingness to be diplomatically involved from the Central Asian steppe to the jungles of South America.
Another shortcoming arises from the continued bellicosity between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. The regularity with which threats are childishly tossed between both leaders causes consternation around the world. While some argue nuclear war will not break out between the states, this certainly does not cool nerves in South Korea and Japan, America’s two most important allies throughout Asia. The more tensions rise between the United States and North Korea, the greater leverage China receives as Kim’s dependable global partner. Beijing will then use this leverage to overshadow the United States as champion of the global order and stability.
Trump was also willing to sacrifice NATO, due to obsolescence and to curry favor in Moscow. This caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare that, “Europe can no longer rely on foreign partners” and “[Germans] must take our fate into our own hands.” Even America’s oldest allies are defecting from U.S. leadership, a problem which has yet to manifest repercussions. Trump reversed his position on NATO several months into his presidency, noting that NATO was not actually obsolete. But by then much of the damage had been done. Signaling and posture matter. If Trump could so easily flip-flop on a key security issue, what is to say he would not do it again? The Western led world champions democratic values, human rights, economic development, and oversaw the greatest economic expansion in human history. Lagging American dominance and reliability provides the opportunity for future Chinese ascension.
In an age of “America First,” the Trump administration is putting foreign policy last. This opens the door for radical changes in the global order if the United States fails to lead. Impacts may oscillate between positive and negative, but a shift in global leadership will have raucous repercussions regardless. Nonetheless, the United States will be unable to respond in the same unitary ways as it has since the end of the Cold War if Trump’s mantra doesn’t shift. Beijing has been waiting for the moment to strike, and assumed it would wait another 30 years. But Beijing believes that timeline may have moved up considerably. And they likely will not waste a moment.
This article is the first in a series exploring the shifting power structure between the current U.S. dominated global order and China’s Rise.
Second Article in Series: China’s Rising Power