What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
The closest example that we’ll probably have in our lifetimes will be the ascendancy of China to challenge the global democratic and free-market system established by the United States since the end of WWII. This showdown will dominate the twenty-first century.
Ever since the end of WWII, the United States has created networks of allies, spearheaded social change and market liberalization, and pushed to continually make the world better. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, America became a hyperpower, able to shape the world to fit its ideals, because it had learned the lessons that were so harshly taught by the world wars: that neither America, nor the world, can afford for the US to isolate itself, or to take a backseat to world affairs. The US cannot afford to internalize, as it was the link that held together the international system, which serves both American interest as well as promotes democracy and globalization.
But in the current era of populism, instead of leading, America has withdrawn. America has voluntarily ceded global leadership on climate change by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and spurned strengthening international economic ties by withdrawing from the TPP, and disparaging NAFTA. The President has taken steps to exacerbate the tension even more between the United States and its allies in more recent weeks by imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some of America’s closest allies, including the EU and Canada, and coming dangerously close to provoking a trade war with China on a variety of goods.
This is not to say that President Trump is necessarily driven by bad intentions for the country or has an agenda for the weakening of US power internationally; on the contrary, he is driven by intentions of preserving American power by balancing the trade deficit and attempting to crack down on what he perceives as unfair foreign trade practices, poorly negotiated deals that screw over the American worker, and especially in the case of China, massive intellectual property theft. None of Trump’s new policies necessarily come as a surprise, as he has followed through on campaign promises regarding trade, such pulling out of the TPP and starting to punish China for their unfair practices, and showed a propensity to tackle difficult and complex problems that most, on the right or left, would rather avoid and sweep under the rug.
But while Trump’s overarching vision is admirable, in the sense that less trade deficits would be better for the American economy and that American intellectual property should not be stolen, many of his methods of carrying out those reforms leave much to be desired.
Tariffs placed on China in order to combat behavior such as unfair government subsidies to deflate prices, and nationally-sponsored intellectual property theft, ultimately punish the average American consumer more than China itself. By alienating American allies with punitive trade measures, Trump’s policies not only harm American consumers, but also the US’ status on the world stage. This effect was magnified even more in his decision to withdraw entirely from the TPP, rather than negotiate to improve terms. Like the tariffs, the American withdrawal from the deal had a double negative effect, both by giving up the consumer benefits that America would’ve been able to partake in as well as taking her out of the loop of the Pacific Rim economic alliance, creating a power vacuum by rejecting a network specifically meant to balance the power of a rising China.
At the same time as Americans are internalizing and reducing their global presence, China’s doing the opposite; they’re expanding their global reach and influence, in many instances filling the power vacuums that Americans have left behind them. The Chinese are externalizing, with an overarching foreign policy goal under their president Xi Jinping: to remold the world stage so that China is global leader, and that her interests are more represented internationally, not America’s.
China offers a new vision to those around the world who feel left out of the prosperity that has been created under the American system of globalization. It offers, finally, a world that is not dominated by what some see as a continuation of the European imperial order that has reigned for the past 500 years. China supplies loans and development funds without the stringent human rights standards that the West does, turning a willful blind eye to human rights violations in whatever country that takes its money in exchange for resources and closer economic ties. By offering aid with no conditions, China gets the best of both worlds: profits with authoritarian countries that the West refuse to deal with, and the ability to portray themselves as the counterbalance to the Western model of meddling in the sovereignty of others.
An infamous incident of China’s disregard for international human rights was when they sold weapons in defiance of an international arms embargo against the Sudanese government during the genocide that was taking place in Darfur, even going so far as to train Sudanese government troops how to fly its exported fighter jets. Another example would be North Korea, where the Chinese government props up the Kim Dynasty despite its horrific repression in order to preserve an ally on their northern border.
China has also begun to establish itself as an alternative to Western lending and banks, creating institutions to rival traditionally Western-dominated ones like the World Bank and the IMF. The prime example of this is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is chartered to invest billions of dollars in the Asian-Pacific region in lieu of traditional Western organizations like the Asian Development Bank, which China claims is too heavily dominated by Japan and America. Even some key American allies, like the UK, have become members of the bank, and in the present US absence in the world stage, China is building even more allies and connections, creating the network that will eventually be capable of challenging American hegemony.
China is also courting more developing nations hostile to Western institutions, especially in Africa, offering economic aid with no human development strings attached. Africa remains one of the world’s most underdeveloped regions and China has exploited the West’s general lack of enthusiasm for investment in order to build closer ties themselves. The Afro-Chinese trade is now the largest in the world between the continent and another country, valued at over 210 billion dollars while the US lags behind at about 80 billion. Along with increasing ties with Africa, China has sought to revive its ancient connections along the Silk Road through a new initiative called “One Belt One Road,” a program that develops the infrastructure and trade relations with a variety of Asian nations, the beginning of a continental trade network with China in the center. Through this initiative, it has built road, track, and other forms of infrastructure through many of the countries of Central Asia, the Middle East, and into Russia to stimulate trade. One could argue that this would be the beginning of China’s own TPP, as it creates the beginnings of a web of growing economic powers with itself at the center. Unlike the US, however, there’s no indication that they will willingly pull out of said web anytime soon.
In addition to the buildup of its so-called ‘soft-power’ (diplomacy, economic relationships), China is also actively building its military power and acting on their interests around the world. China now boasts the second-largest military budget in the world, behind only the US, as well as developing fifth-generation fighter jets, building up its navy, and making substantial renovations to its land-based equipment. It also hasn’t been afraid to flex its newfound military muscles, disputing over oil resources in the South China Sea with over six other countries. China has adopted island building on the water in order to cement their rule in regions of the sea that are claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, a move ruled illegal by a tribune in the Hague in 2016. China’s also been expanding its reach beyond its backyard of East Asia, constructing its first naval base in Djibouti at a cost of over half a billion dollars. This allows them significantly improved capabilities of power projection overseas, especially in the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean regions, of which 64% of the world’s oil trade is shipped through. But more symbolically, the PRC’s Djibouti base represents the growing globalization of China’s power, evidence that it both has the means and intentions of becoming an international leader.
And what is the US’ response to all of this? What is the United States doing to stem the tide of China’s ascension, and to keep its status as the leader of the world? Very little, actually. In fact, the actions of President Trump are helping them.
President Trump has reduced America’s global presence around the world, advocating for protectionist and exclusionist policies for those beyond American borders. His“America First” policy gives off more of a message of “America Only” with the way he has implemented his plan, like his construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. This is despite the fact that most illegal immigrants entering the US come by air and simply outstay their visas. No matter what your take on it domestically is, it has undisputedly lowered America’s international standing in the eyes of many, especially from the United States’ neighbors to the south in Latin America. They saw from their TV screens as a man, who called immigrants from their country rapists and drug dealers, was elected to the office of US president. It’s not very surprising then, as right after the victory of Trump in the election, that Mexico deepened its relationship with China, meeting with the Chinese State Councilor in December of 2016 to discuss broadening trade and bilateral relations. This is a perfect example of the US alienating its own allies, and leaving the door open for China to just stroll in and establish itself as a trade partner and new international leader in lieu of the lack of American support.
Some Americans still scoff at the notion that China could ever replace them, but that’s exactly the sort of arrogance, and willful ignorance of the current shifting world order, that may drive the United States to ruin. In the modern era of Trumpism, the US is seen as unwilling, or even unable, to lead in many issues of the world ranging from refugees to climate change to economic liberalization. The confidence in the United States, the trust of American allies and dependencies around the world, are being degraded by the foreign policy decisions of the current administration. And, as has always happened in history, if the world leader is seen as faltering or weakening, smaller countries will naturally turn to its challenger, the rising power, the future. And in 2018, that’s looking more and more like China.
Given all these problems, and the rise of Chinese power, the solution for a continued American century, while difficult, is obvious: to step up the United States’ level of global involvement. The United States must stop its attempts to withdraw from world affairs and become a leader once more in areas like climate change and trade. The United States must rebuild its relationships with its allies as well as compete more aggressively with China to build new ties with developing nations. Refugees and immigrants cannot be an excuse to justify exclusionist policies, and American leaders must find a way to provide new jobs and training for those Americans left behind in the twenty-first century’s digital economy rather than using them as an excuse to withdraw from trade deals and climate change agreements. Now is the time for action, innovation, and leadership, not fear and withdrawal.
But while the US must take a bigger stance and stop its global retreat, Americans must also make reasonable accommodations for China in the international trade and financial arena. When China established their Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), one of its motives was the fact that the related Asian Development Bank was too heavily dominated by America and Japan. Voting shares for the US and Japan was about 26%, while for China it was only 6%, so one can hardly blame the Chinese for being dissatisfied with the power breakdown. Only by giving China a more appropriate seat for its rising status at the international table will the US be able to keep them in the loop in already-established organizations rather than encouraging them to sabotage existing institutions by setting up their own. While it may seem like a paradox, Americans must realize that a more multilateral international order is the only way to preserve the general structure of the existing one. It is the only way to ensure the continued leadership of America in the world and the ideals that she holds.
There is no guarantee that China will be completely appeased, and will not continue attempts to undermine established Western institutions. But it should also be recognized that the current path of conflict between China and the US has been caused by a mentality in the West to treat China as the enemy. Trump’s isolationist policies in the current day are the modern manifestation of a long trend of US policies regarding China, now allowing them more than ever to marshal allies to challenge the reigning superpower.
However, there is a current misunderstanding in the West that when China says “superpower,” that she means power along the lines of the US, with battle groups of aircraft carriers and a military that can project power and troops all around the world. China has historically been a nation that prefers being a regional power, and even today prepares its military for the defense of essentially its islands in the East and South China Seas, as well as for the potential war against its claimed province Taiwan.
The Chinese people shun the idea of being the ‘global policeman’ that the United States is, and if incorporated more tightly into existing Western economic and political institutions with an adequate amount of representation, also would not try and actively subvert the global culture spread by the West, that of democracy and free markets. This is because while China may not share the same governing philosophy as the United States, the current post-WWII order that it has resided in has been very good for it economically, and no global power would seriously seek to change it. It is only today that it appears that China is gathering a system of allies to balance the West both politically and economically only because it has been excluded for so long from Western gatherings, and if integrated, often given a disproportionately small voice, such as in the ADB. So, in order for the United States to balance the rise of China, American leaders must re-evaluate their perspective on the country and to carve out a new, more appropriate space for China in the future, while at the same time holding keeping American allies loyal and to stop driving them away with Trump’s current policies of isolation.
In summary, the path of exclusion that the United States is embarking on will lead to nothing but a loss in US power. It’s worth noting that other superpowers that kept up a consistent policy of interaction with those outside their borders, like the Roman Empire and the British, dominated the world for centuries and only fell through war. The Pax Americana has only really existed for 27 years since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Already, it is in danger and under siege by both internal and external forces. If America cannot find the willpower to lead around the world once more, it may go down as the only superpower in history to have lost its hegemony voluntarily.