Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the only country standing to gain from Donald Trump’s tenure and from the foreign policy he is bent on pursuing. With all due respect to Russia, with its economy hanging by a slender thread, the superpower competing with the U.S. for global dominance today is China. The prevailing assessment is that Trump’s isolationist policy and his opposition to globalization plays well into Beijing’s hands.
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The notion that the American president’s actions, aimed at minimizing U.S. presence in the international arena, are advantageous for China is shared by Dr. Eyal Propper, deputy head of the division for strategic affairs at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. He served for many years in Israel’s embassy in Beijing, ending up with the rank of minister and interim ambassador.
“It’s no coincidence that Xi Jinping has started talking about globalization,” says Dr. Propper, referring to the much-lauded speech China’s president delivered in Davos last month.
A day after that speech Xi also presented his country as the new defender of the environment, in contrast to the long-lasting affair the U.S. president has had with global-warming denial. Xi assailed Trump’s threats to abandon the Paris Agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Following Trump’s declarations that he intends to slash U.S. financial transfers to the United Nations, Chinese media started underscoring the growing role China has been playing in that organization.
China is trying hard to play a more significant role in determining the rules of international trade, and Trump’s announcement that he was abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement suited China’s aims very well. This partnership, which was slated to be the biggest trade treaty ever signed, included most of the large countries lying along the Pacific, except China. Its objective was to promote trade among the 13 signatory states. In addition, and no less importantly in the eyes of Beijing’s neighbors, mainly Japan, the agreement was designed to somewhat curtail the vast economic power wielded by the world’s most populous country. Following Trump’s abandoning of the TPP, Beijing clarified that it intended to proceed in its efforts to formulate an alternative agreement with countries in the Pacific region.
In his new book, “Panda or Dragon – China’s Foreign Policy in the Age of Reforms,” Propper describes how the Chinese Foreign Ministry is rebuilding itself after the chaos it was thrown into by Mao Zedong and his disciples, before and mainly during the Cultural Revolution, and how its approach developed from an isolationist and militant stance into pursuing policies that seek global cooperation in order to advance. Following the events at Tiananmen Square the Chinese strengthen a basic principle – to verify the cooperation with many countries and never to be dependent on any external sources. Thus, involvement in multi-national organizations suits their new approach, and Trump’s retreating from involvement in these bodies only helps Beijing.
“The multilateral stance adopted by the Chinese is aimed at increasing their freedom of movement, their maneuverability, leaving them independent of anyone else,” says Propper.
The progress made by China over the last 20 years in the international arena is evident mostly in the roles played by senior Chinese officials in international bodies. Among other roles, Chinese officials now hold the posts of deputy managing director at the International Monetary Fund and vice president of the World Bank. Just as important is that last November, a Chinese citizen was chosen to lead Interpol.
As it stakes its claims, China sees to it that it does not appear overeager. Accordingly, its diplomats are careful to portray their country as having to take charge of world leadership in response to the situation, not as something it itself initiated. “The Chinese aren’t eager to take over the role of the U.S. in international organizations. They are only gradually increasing their financial commitments,” says Propper, explaining that Beijing intends to ride the multinational wave only in accordance with its own interests. “They’ll put their money only where they think it’s worth their while to replace the Americans,” he adds.
Now that international organizations are worried about losing American financial support, at least in part, China’s bargaining power is on the rise. Under these circumstances, with the Chinese seeing the possibilities opening up before them, they may be more willing to compromise with Trump on direct trade between the two countries.
The tension between China and the U.S. holds the potential for a flare-up. Only last week Trump took a step backwards after a report was published in which American experts on China warned that violating the “One China” policy could lead to war between the two superpowers. Trump called his Chinese counterpart and retracted some controversial positions on "One China" he had expressed earlier. However, the potential for a blow-up lies in other topics as well – chiefly in the South China Sea, over which China claims control, based on historical reasons. The U.S. supports the position of its allies in the region, which demand some parts of the sea for themselves.
In order to keep things in perspective, it should be noted that during the tenures of two previous presidents, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, there were security-related crises that brought tension between the two countries almost to a boiling point. These crises were ultimately resolved in a rational manner. For Clinton it was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo war. During the Bush presidency, the Chinese took over an American spy plane which, they claimed, had entered their air space. They released the crew after receiving an apology. The dismantled plane was only returned after several months.
Another point is that Trump will soon realize that he needs Beijing to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which have returned to the headlines after the launch of a ballistic missile by Pyongyang two days ago.
Propper believes that the Chinese are interested in maintaining good relations with the U.S., arguing that as long as Trump doesn’t impinge on anything China views as a “core interest,” namely the stability of the Communist regime, the “One China” policy and the South China Sea, he will find that on everything else, “there is someone to talk to, if you are wise.” The main remaining question is whether the administration in Washington will manage to act rationally.