Can China overtake the United States to lead the world?
That was the question posed by the nationalist Global Times tabloid in Beijing on Monday.
If the United States under Donald Trump gives up its global leadership and withdraws into isolationism, will the rising superpower of China replace it?
Ironically, in the past week, China has come forward to defend the system of global governance which the United States has done much to build.
Senior officials have urged Trump not to walk away from a global deal to address climate change, while President Xi Jinping told the Asia-Pacific region not to surrender to protectionist pressures, but recommit itself to globalisation and free trade.
“Openness is the lifeline of the regional economy,” Xi told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in the Peruvian capital Lima on Saturday.
State news agency Xinhua gushed that Xi’s speech put China and the region in the “vanguard” of a joint effort to revive the global economy.
Of course, both the United States and China have sometimes used their power to ignore global rules, whether in sidestepping the United Nations to invade Iraq or in advancing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, China is defending the collaborative, rules-based order because it has benefited hugely from that system: its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 gave an immense boost to Chinese exports but also provided a real incentive for its own domestic economic reforms.
Its 1.4 billion people also stand to lose heavily if the planet continues to warm sharply.
But is it prepared to accept the burden of leadership?
In 2014, President Barack Obama accused China of being a “free rider” on the world stage, but there is no doubt that under Xi Jinping the country has been taking a more forceful global role — launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014 and a ‘Belt and Road’ regional development plan.
China’s influence will also expand if Trump fulfills his campaign promise to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim nations.
The TPP was a key element of President Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia, but his administration has given up on the idea of ratifying the deal in the lame duck session of Congress.
China, meanwhile, has lost no time in pushing forward its own vision for free trade in Asia, through a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a potential deal it has long championed involving 14 Asian nations, plus Australia and New Zealand.
The RCEP would involve much lower standards for the environment, labour rights and intellectual property protection than the TPP and does not include the United States, potentially leaving US businesses at a competitive disadvantage in Asia.
“There’s no doubt that there would be a pivot to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership if the TPP doesn’t go forward,” Japanese Prime Minister Abe said, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Vietnam has already indicated it won’t go ahead with ratification of the TPP, while Malaysia has said it will now turn its attention towards the RCEP negotiations. Chile and Peru have also expressed interest in joining RCEP negotiations in the light of the TPP’s problems.
But championing a regional trade deal is not quite the same as leading the world, and on that score at least China is not yet ready to take up the burden.
“China to its credit has always been open that at its current stage of development, it has no capability or ambition to replace the United States,” said Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “It wants the US to gradually relinquish some control, and gradually make room for China. But it doesn’t want the US to suddenly retreat — it doesn’t want to deal with the unpredictability and potential chaos that would go with that.”
Last week, China’s top envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, said the United States still needed to play a joint leadership role in combating global warming. For one thing, developed countries have proposed around $100 billion in annual support for developing countries by 2020, a commitment that depends on Washington’s participation.
More broadly, though, the Global Times argued that China is still no match for the United States, as it lacks the ability and psychological readiness to lead the world. “If Washington withdraws from the Paris climate deal, China can stick to its commitment, yet it won’t be able to make up for the loss caused by the US,” it wrote. “Or if the US takes on an anti-free trade path, the messy consequences will be beyond China’s ability to repair.”
Even in the Asia-Pacific region, China “chafes” against US dominance, said Xie at Gavekal, “but a lot of foreign policy experts privately admit that China has benefitted from peace and stability under the current order.”
The Global Times concluded it was unimaginable China could replace the United States. “So Sino-US cooperation is the only choice for future global governance. For a long time to come, the leadership of the US will be irreplaceable,” it concluded. “Meanwhile, China’s further rise is inevitable.”
By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn November 22nd, 2016