Richard Javad Heydarian Correspondent
In less than a year in office, US President Donald Trump has managed to alienate more allies and provoke more enemies faster and more decisively than any of his predecessors in recent history.
All of a sudden, we face the simultaneous threats of war from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East. Meanwhile, US’ chief rival, China, has steadily expanded its influence across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, wooing both the East and the West with an enticing package of economic mega-initiatives, which seek to transform the world in Beijing’s image.
While Trump is picking fights with new and old adversaries, China is steadily expanding its spheres of influence. Day-by-day, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the world is on the cusp of a post-American order, if not a new era of Chinese hegemony. And neither outcome is necessarily a cause for celebration.
China’s soft power coup
From Europe to Asia, friends and allies of the US have been watching Trump’s tempestuous presidency in dread.
His midnight rants on Twitter, incoherent policy on major geopolitical flashpoints, penchant for firing senior advisers, apparent Islamophobia, and constant berating of free trade and the broader international liberal order have dramatically undermined confidence in US global leadership. And controversial decisions by his administration have been increasingly alienating US allies.
According to one survey covering 37 nations in five continents, confidence in the US presidency doing the right thing for the international community has virtually collapsed; as many as 74 percent of respondents expressed little to zero confidence in Trump’s global leadership acumen.
In major allied nations such as Japan and South Korea, 78 and 88 percent of respondents said they had confidence in Barack Obama in the last year of his presidency; for Trump, these numbers are now respectively 24 and 17 percent.
The emergence of China as a new pillar of the international order isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. Washington’s fickleness has eased in Beijing’s charm offensive. China has courted even some of US’ closest allies such as the Philippines. And surveys show that a growing number of people, including in the Philippines, support their country’s pivot to China amid doubts over American wherewithal and commitment.
With the Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric escalating over the past year, China has adopted a much more balanced and diplomatic stance on the world political stage. Beijing has opposed Trump’s suggestions of decertifying the Iranian nuclear deal and his belligerent statements on North Korea.
China has also openly rejected Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by emphasising the necessity for a two-state solution, where East Jerusalem becomes the capital of Palestine.
If the White House continues down the foreign policy path it has adopted in the first year of Trump’s presidency, China will have a much easier time presenting itself as a non-interventionist superpower, which favours peaceful solutions to intractable conflicts, and perhaps even as a global arbiter.
China: The new champion of free trade
In a bizarre twist of events, Trump (a billionaire and former real estate magnate) has also become the new voice of economic protectionism and a chief critic of economic globalisation.
Throughout his international visits, including in Asia, he has called for “fair” trade and bilateral trade agreements, directly challenging the US century-old commitment to the global liberal order. In response, the most powerful allies of the US, including Japan, Australia and Europe, have pushed ahead with alternative trade arrangements which directly bypass Washington.
In stark contrast to Trump’s rhetoric, communist China has presented itself as the new vanguard of the international economic order. The American bully may be on its way to permanent decline, but its likely successor is far from reassuring.
During his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “more open, more balanced, more equitable and more beneficial” global trading arrangements, praised proposed and existing “multilateral trading regime[s]” and underlined the necessity for “practice[ing] open regionalism”.
While Trump unilaterally nixed the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, China supported alternative trading arrangements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which covers 16 nations across the Asia-Pacific region.
China has doubled down on its economic influence by launching the trillion-dollar One Belt One Road Initiative earlier this year, a mega-project that aims to connect Asia to Europe and Africa via a new network of Beijing-funded roads, railroads and shipping lanes. The message is clear: Where the US offers criticism and threats, China offers investments and hope.
Will China be a better hegemon than the US?
The emergence of China as a new pillar of the international order isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.
For a reality check, one must take a sober look at Beijing’s limited respect for human rights and democracy, support for oppressive and dangerous regimes, mixed record on the success of its investments across the developing world, territorial assertiveness and direct challenge to international norms and laws, as well as increasing interference in the affairs of smaller nations.
From Asia to Africa and Latin America, a growing number of developing countries have found themselves drowning in unsustainable debt, thanks to white elephants built by Chinese infrastructure companies.
Unable to settle their debt and optimise mal-designed infrastructure projects, poor nations have been forced to grant Beijing full stake in their critical infrastructure and resources such as seaports (Sri Lanka), major public land (Laos), and natural resources (Venezuela).
China hasn’t behaved as belligerently as the US (yet), but there are enough reasons to cast doubt on the long-term designs of the Asian powerhouse in the developing world.
The American bully may be on its way to permanent decline, but its likely successor is far from reassuring. – Al Jazeera