Three days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, when he launched the United States on a protectionist course, China’s leader Xi Jinping gave a keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos where he issued a clarion call for economic globalization.
Whereas Trump said, “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” Xi declared: “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air.”
The Trump administration is launching America on a seemingly isolationist course, abdicating responsibilities that the country had assumed and, in the process, facilitating China’s move into the resulting political vacuum. This is notably the case with climate change and trade agreements.
Still, China is not donning the mantle of world leader that the US is shedding, realizing that it is not yet in a position to succeed the US as global leader.
In fact, Beijing had long taken the position that reining in North Korea’s or Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts or reducing Chinese carbon emissions were favors that it was bestowing on Washington, not responsibilities that it should discharge. Indeed, China saw the G2 idea that emerged at the beginning of the Obama administration as a trap designed to slow down its development by making it assume greater responsibilities.
In 2008, when the global financial crisis erupted, expectations were high that China, with the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, would step up and provide substantial assistance. Instead, Chinese leaders took the position that taking care of China was its contribution to the world.
Then President Hu Jintao told the Asia-Europe Meeting, “China’s sound economic growth is in itself a major contribution to global financial stability and economic growth.”
Nine years later, things have changed. China since 2010 has become the world’s second largest economy. In fact, according to the International Monetary Fund, China edged out the US in 2014 and is already the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity terms.
In the interim, China has also launched its first aircraft carrier and established its first overseas military base. The Chinese navy has undergone a rapid modernization push and now poses a significant challenge to the American navy. Such developments have given China the confidence that it lacked a decade ago.
Still, China balks at the concept of “world leader”, preferring instead to say that it will assume greater responsibilities.
Asked at a foreign ministry press conference whether Trump’s policies may enable China to play a leading role in politics, trade and other areas, a Chinese spokesman responded: “I prefer the word ‘responsibility’ to ‘leadership.’ We are ready to work with all others and make our own contribution to resolving the problems facing our world.”
In a rare admission, one Chinese diplomat, Zhang Jun, head of the foreign ministry’s office of international economic affairs, acknowledged that “if it’s necessary for China to play the role of leader, then China must take on this responsibility.” But he made it clear that China was doing so reluctantly rather than out of ambition.
“If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership,” Zhang explained, “it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front”.
But even this relatively mild formulation was too much for some Chinese. Global Times, the frequently assertive tabloid, published an editorial opposing a “world leader” label for China.
“In terms of negotiating trade rules, formulating monetary policy and market access conditions,” it said, “China has gradually gained some voice.”
But while China is willing to continue to promote globalization, it said, China is not willing to replace the US as world leader. China, it said, is not ready to “lead the world” and the world also is not ready for “Chinese leadership.”
This is a fair summation of the situation. The world is not clamoring for Chinese leadership and China is saying that it isn’t interested anyway. Instead, China merely wants a bigger voice on economic issues, which it can no longer be denied in any event.
So, for the time being at least, the world will just have to get along without the US as the leader in all matters. And China is right that the world is not ready for it to be the leader, except maybe in economic or trade matters. Come to think of it, that’s probably not a bad situation for the world to be in.
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