WE do not yet have the official agenda for next month’s meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, between United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But, after 75 years of American leadership on the world stage, we might be watching the beginning of a handover of power from the US to China. Trump has embraced a policy of retreat from the world, opening a space that will be eagerly filled by the Communist Party of China.
Trump railed against China on the campaign trail, bellowing that it was “raping” the US. He vowed to label it a currency manipulator on his first day in office. But in his first interaction with Beijing, he caved. Weeks after his election, Trump speculated that he might upgrade relations with Taiwan. In response, Xi froze all contacts between Beijing and Washington on all issues, demanding that Trump reverse himself — which is exactly what happened. (Perhaps coincidentally, a few weeks later, the Chinese government granted the Trump organisation dozens of trademark rights in China, with a speed and on a scale that surprised many experts.)
The Trump administration’s vision for America’s disengagement from the world is a godsend for China. Look at Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut spending on “soft power” — from diplomacy and foreign aid to funds for international organisations — by 28 per cent. Beijing, by contrast, has tripled the budget of its Foreign Ministry in the last decade. And, that doesn’t include its massive spending on aid and development across Asia and Africa.
Just tallying some of Beijing’s key development commitments, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh estimates the total at US$1.4 trillion (RM6.2 trillion), compared to the Marshall Plan, which in today’s dollars would cost about US$100 billion.
China’s growing diplomatic strength matters. An Asian head of government recently explained to me that at every regional conference: “Washington sends a couple of diplomats whereas Beijing sends dozens. The Chinese are there at every committee meeting and you are not.” The result, he explained, is that Beijing is increasingly setting the Asian agenda.
The Trump administration wants to skimp on US funding for the United Nations. This is music to Chinese ears. Beijing has been trying to gain influence in the global body for years. It has increased its funding for the UN across the board and would likely be delighted to pick up the slack as America withdraws. China has already risen to be the second-largest funder of UN peacekeeping and, as Foreign Policy magazine’s Colum Lynch observes, Beijing has more peacekeepers than the other four permanent Security Council members put together. Of course, in return for this, China will gain increased influence, from key appointments to shifts in policy throughout the UN system.
The first major act of the Trump administration was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that would have opened up long-closed economies like Japan and Vietnam, but also would have created a bloc that could stand up to China’s increasing domination of trade and economics in Asia. The TPP was, in Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words “a litmus test” of America’s credibility in Asia. With Washington’s withdrawal, even staunchly pro-American allies like Australia are now hedging their bets. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the possibility of China joining the TPP, essentially turning a group that was meant to be a deterrent against China into one more arm of Chinese influence.
America’s global role has also always meant being at the cutting edge in science, education and culture. Here again, Washington is scaling back while Beijing is ramping up. In Trump’s proposed budget, the National Institutes of Health, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and the national laboratories face crippling cuts, as will many educational and scholarship exchange programmes that have brought generations of young leaders to America to be trained and exposed to this country and its values. Beijing, meanwhile has continued to expand Confucius Institutes around the world and now offers 20,000 scholarships for foreign students to go to China. Its funding for big science expands every year. The world’s largest telescope is now in China, not the US.
The Trump administration does want a bigger military. But, that has never been how China has sought to compete with US power. Chinese leaders have pointed out to me that this was the Soviet strategy during the Cold War, one that failed miserably. The implication was: Let Washington waste resources on the Pentagon, while Beijing would focus on economics, technology and soft power.
Trump’s new national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, once remarked that trying to fight America symmetrically — tank for tank — was “stupid”. The smart strategy would be an asymmetrical one. The Chinese seem to understand this.
The writer is an American journalist and author. He is the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and writes a weekly column for ‘The Washington Post.’