Mark 2017 as the year when the American Century ended and the Chinese Century began. On the U.S. side, President Donald Trump has abandoned American leadership on trade (ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership), security (refusing to affirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter that pledges member states to the common defense) and the environment (withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change).
In a barely veiled reference to Trump’s makeover of U.S. foreign policy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared on behalf of Germany and Europe as a whole: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.”
Meanwhile, China recently held an international forum in Beijing to rally support for its Belt and Road Initiative. Under this plan, China will provide financing and expertise to build infrastructure designed to facilitate trade and investment among countries stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe. Some of the financing will be provided through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which expects to reach eighty-five member countries by the end of the year. Among the new members will be Japan, which recently declared an intention to join after initially rejecting membership under American pressure. The Belt and Road Initiative reflects the confidence and ambition of a rising power, in a manner similar to the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
In pointed contrast with the protectionist winds blowing from Washington, D.C., Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a widely noted speech at the World Economic Forum defending economic globalization. China is also, in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pushing to complete negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade accord that will bring many of the same countries into greater dependence upon China.
As the U.S. abdicates its responsibilities on climate change, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang reaffirmed China’s commitment to the Paris Accord while standing alongside Merkel in Berlin. Although China remains the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, it has also led the way in producing affordable solar and wind technologies for the global market and has plans to fully electrify China’s vehicle fleet by 2030. By contrast, the Trump Administration has acted speedily to remove regulations that discourage coal-fired power plants, open more public lands to fossil fuel drilling and ease gas-mileage standards for America’s passenger vehicle fleet.
Trump’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would dramatically cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations. This follows China’s 2015 pledge of $1 billion to a new United Nations “peace and development fund.” China also designated 8,000 troops as a permanent reserve available for U.N. peacekeeping missions and offered $100,000 in support for the African Union to create an emergency peacekeeping force.
In short, as America abandons international institutions and pulls back on the provision of global public goods, China is moving in the opposite direction.
U.S. decline has been accelerated by a series of self-inflicted wounds over the past fifteen years. The unnecessary, costly and failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq diverted resources that could have been spent rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure or improving a mediocre education system. The 2008 economic crisis was a consequence of unwise decisions to weaken regulation of financial institutions. The most recent misfire was the election of a president whose lack of experience, poor judgment and ignorance of government or policy are unprecedented. China, on the other hand, has spent this period stoking rapid economic growth, building some of the most impressive infrastructure in the world and strengthening its military.
It remains to be seen how the Chinese Century will unfold. As a prime beneficiary of the current liberal international order, China will likely seek to preserve a stable, peaceful and economically integrated global system. Compared with the U.S., China will be a more restrained superpower when it comes to military intervention outside of its immediate neighborhood, although China will seek to carve out a regional sphere of influence surrounding its own borders.
China departs from the liberal order in its rejection of any unifying set of norms or principles. The foundational documents and institutions of the U.S.-led order embraced the values of freedom, democracy and human rights. To be sure, the U.S. has partnered with many regimes that regularly violate those values and America’s own record leaves it open to charges of hypocrisy. Nevertheless, America’s inconsistent but nevertheless significant support for liberal values has inspired many people around the world and served as a source of soft power for American leaders.
President Trump has made clear that the days when liberal values played a role in steering American foreign policy are gone. Instead, foreign policy will be seen in transactional terms – what’s in it for us? In this respect, the United States has adopted China’s view of the world in which no values are universal and states should avoid interfering in one another’s internal affairs, even when human rights and fundamental freedoms are at stake.
In abandoning the notion that the existing liberal order is about something more than the sum of individual national interests, Trump is paving the way for the Chinese Century, which will privilege order and economic interest over some higher purpose. In this new world, it is not only American power that becomes less relevant, but also the American idea.