President Trump’s decision to exchange almost all of his political capital in Asia with China to buy a resolution to the North Korean situation, has allowed China’s role as a global leader to flourish.
BEIJING (Analysis) — Over the past year, much of the media in the U.S. has functioned as a nonstop rumor mill, producing a host of conspiracies centered around Donald Trump allegedly doing the bidding of Moscow. While Russia may have slightly better luck working with the U.S. under the Trump administration, that relationship has yet to pay off for Moscow in any meaningful way. However, there is one country that has seen massive gains since Donald Trump took office: China.
China has benefitted more than any other nation in light of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy. The U.S. media may not discuss China much, but it has been taken note that since Trump has taken office and focused his Asia policy primarily on enlisting Beijing’s help to untie the Gordian knot that is North Korea, China is playing a larger role in world affairs.
Not only is China aiding powerbrokers in affairs such as the North Korea issue, but Beijing is also building stronger ties with Western powers like the U.K. and beginning to take a leadership role on the world stage.
According to political scientist and risk analyst Ian Bremmer with the neoliberal think tank, the Eurasia Group, this new role for China wasn’t planned, instead it resulted from Trump’s renunciation of “the U.S. commitment to Washington-led multilateralism,” which “generated much uncertainty about the future U.S. role in Asia, creating a power vacuum that China can now begin to fill.” This vacuum in leadership was created early in Trump’s presidency, and to see where the decline of U.S. influence in Asia first began, one need only look to Trump’s first few days in office.
Cancellation of the TPP opens door for Belt and Road
The first loss of U.S. political capital to China happened just three days into the Trump presidency when Trump issued an executive order calling for the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive neoliberal trade deal signed by Barack Obama that had yet to be approved by Congress. The TPP was rejected by politically cognizant Americans across the spectrum, as well as by many senators, who would usually be quick to endorse corporate-backed deals, but were disturbed by some of the implications of the TPP and the fact that many of them weren’t even allowed to read its contents.
The TPP was so unpopular that only 24 percent of the typically pro-free-trade GOP supported the deal, and even Robert Reich, who served as Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, called it “NAFTA on steroids” — which made Trump’s elimination of the treaty a universally popular decision among the fringes of U.S. politics (although most Americans weren’t even aware what the TPP was).
While some of us may know the TPP as that awful corporate trade deal that would have given the power of governing global trade law to corporations and further devalue labor in countries on the Pacific Rim, the treaty also served another crucial purpose in terms of U.S. geopolitical capital — isolating China from the Western-led global economy.
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The TPP would have bound together around 40 percent of global GDP through the largest ever multilateral agreement, which cut tariffs and standardized regulation, largely centered in Southeast Asia, creating an economic bloc large enough to counter Chinese business and investment in the region. While some of the nations included in the deal began trying to revive the TPP without the U.S. following Trump’s decision to withdraw, talk amongst Asian leaders is now centered for the most part on China’s Belt and Road, the giant economic initiative of President Xi Jinping that will encompass a majority of the global economy, spread Chinese investment across the globe, and likely turn former U.S. vassal-states into Chinese partners.
A prime example of these changes could be seen as early as last June, when members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met for a conference in Tokyo. During these meetings, the ASEAN members — which include Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei — spoke about how hard it would be to revive the TPP without the U.S.; and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also told the conference audience that “The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative holds the potential to connect East and West as well as the diverse regions found in between.”
While this may seem to signal the death of the TPP, Trump recently spoke about reviving “a better TPP.” Whether it is too late for the U.S. to offer an alternative to Belt and Road is debatable, even more so when the all-time low levels of global trust in Washington are factored in. Some U.S. elites, however, follow the Trump line of thinking and still believe the U.S. will eventually join the Asian-negotiated iteration of the TPP. This was recently predicted by former Secretary of State John Kerry, who also signaled that the U.S. had lost ground to China by admitting that he expected the U.S. to participate in Belt and Road.
Kerry’s predictions envisage a world where the U.S. would join a China-led global economic initiative and not try to challenge a system managed by Beijing. In order for this to occur, Washington would have to find itself with very few close Asian allies, as a result of the U.S. deferring to China on major security questions in the region. Fortunately for China, Trump has done just that.
Trump’s inaction in Asia secures China
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pitched a U.S. foreign policy plan to “pivot to Asia.” While this ambition was never fully realized as a result of unforeseen events demanding his attention in the Middle East, Obama did spend the last few years of his presidency focusing on “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea (SCS).
The SCS became the focal point for Obama’s push against Chinese territorial claims, and freedom-of-navigation operations became one of the few tools available to Washington to push against Beijing.
While Obama and Trump both moved naval ships through the SCS, all of their blusterings failed to stop China from building more artificial islands in the waters demarcated by the “nine-dash line,” which encompasses China’s territorial claims in the SCS, claims that conflict with several other nations in the region. Originally this line was created by the Chinese Nationalist government in 1947. The original boundaries were created to reflect China’s long-held historical claims in the SCS and were originally known as the “11-dash-line,” but the Gulf of Tonkin was given to Vietnam under Chairman Mao Zedong in 1952, and has been a source of wounded national pride for some Chinese citizens.
These shows of force, as well as Obama’s subsequent public condemnations, however pointless, became par for the course in U.S.-China relations until last year. Now, it seems, the nature of the dispute has changed under Trump.
When Trump first took office it seemed as if he was going to continue the freedom-of-navigation policies of Obama, possibly even stepping them up. By October of 2017, Trump had order four drills, compared to Obama’s three in all of 2016. Yet, the last of these exercises was in October of 2017, just before Trump took his first trip to see Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Pror to the trip, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told reporters he hoped Trump would “help and not cause problems” in the SCS — which seems to have worked since the naval drills have stopped.
Beyond the drills, Trump has broken from the Western establishment by choosing not to enforce the “liberal norms” decided upon in places like Brussels or The Hague. Such as the case of Philippines v. China, in which the United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal upheld a territorial claim by Manila in the SCS. While Obama typically agreed with decisions like these, and would often push back on China over their territorial claims, Trump has taken the opposite approach and remained silent.
The failure to uphold the usual aggressive posture of the U.S. in Southeast Asia has been critical to changing relationships in the region, with the Philippines serving as a perfect illustration of the failure of Western policies. Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has moved closer to China and, even if it wanted to contest any claims in the SCS, Duterte has said he would rather approach the question diplomatically than through military means.
This pattern also played out in a recent land dispute between China and U.S.-allied India. The dispute saw two nuclear powers’ at a standoff in a contested border region. The standoff lasted over two months with barely a word from the U.S. other than a comment by State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who said rather tepidly in a press briefing that the standoff was “a situation that we have certainly followed closely. And as you know, we have relationships with both governments. We continue to encourage both parties to sit down and have conversations about that.” While it is hard to say that any U.S. administration would be able to do much in the face of Chinese territorial claims (or would be willing to on behalf of India), it does run counter to Trump’s “tough on China” campaign positions.
The level of U.S. silence in the face of such a major event highlighted the priority shifts between the Obama and Trump administrations. While India-U.S. relations were reaching new levels under Obama, the focus on Asia as a whole has clearly diminished under Trump. The primary reason behind this change is the plan by Trump to exchange almost all of his political capital in Asia with China to buy a resolution to the North Korean situation.
Since taking office, Trump has relied heavily on appeasing Xi Jinping in the hopes that Beijing would solve the trouble Washington has stirred up on the Korean peninsula. While China doesn’t see the internal affairs of the Korean Peninsula as its problem (as demonstrated by Beijing having no comment on Korean peace talks), it has been willing to work with Trump to at least maintain some level of communication between all the nations concerned with Korea. That said, it doesn’t seem Korea weighs nearly as much on the mind of Xi Jinping as it does Donald Trump — since Xi isn’t the one kicking the hornet’s nest, making it Washington’s problem instead of Beijing’s.
Despite agreements between Trump and Xi on resolving the North Korean issue, Trump fails to factor in that China does not control Pyongyang to the extent he wants to believe. As China continues to allow Trump to use it as a scapegoat for his failures in North Korea, it seems Xi doesn’t really mind, as Beijing is freed to build its strength elsewhere.
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center, sees this leadership gap and says that “by having no South China Sea policy, Trump ensures that all the initiative lies with Beijing.”
Much as with his exit from the TPP, Trump’s inaction in Southeast Asia has made formerly close U.S. partners question their relationships with Washington. It would be bad enough for Trump if this were the full extent of the allies he has alienated but the president relinquished U.S. leadership in even bigger ways.
China takes the role of global leader
President Trump isn’t just relinquishing control to Beijing in Asian affairs. A decision early in the Trump presidency put China in the position to lead the world on one of the most pressing issues of the day: climate change.
Days after his election victory, Trump began speaking about pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, a non-binding agreement on climate change negotiated by delegations from every country in the world aside from Syria, who later signed on to the agreement, leaving the U.S. the lone country that is not a signatory.
In the face of these developments, China immediately stepped up to fill the role of global leader on climate change, with a Chinese UN negotiator at the time saying that “it is global society’s will that all want to cooperate to combat climate change,” and that “any movement by the new U.S. government” away from fighting climate change wouldn’t change China’s policies.
This is happening at a time when the U.S. continues to break global commitments such as those in Southeast Asia, NAFTA, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, leaving Washington isolated and under suspicion. This applies to the Paris Agreement as well, where the U.S. has left the global community hostile to Trump and his administration’s changes to environmental regulations.
Meanwhile, without anyone compelling it, Beijing is diverting and harnessing massive resources to continue the fight against climate change. From shuttering hundreds of coal plants to looking for innovative ways to fight air pollution, China has shown a willingness to not only comply with climate agreements but that it is eager to be on the cutting edge of finding solutions.
In a recent move which took aim at the renewable energy sector and on China, home to some of the world’s largest solar panel manufacturers, President Trump placed tariffs on the import of solar panels. The move was a way for Trump to appease his xenophobic base and Republican donors from the fossil-fuel industry. While the Trump cabinet likely saw this as a way to undermine China, experts predict that it will harm the U.S. solar industry, which employs more people than coal, oil, and gas plants combined.
It’s unlikely the newly imposed tariffs will harm China in the long run. Between One Belt One Road, renewed relations surrounding the South China Sea, and leadership and innovation in industries that are likely to be crucial in the future, China has taken on the role of world leader well before it had initially planned. Beijing’s new outward-looking policy wouldn’t yet be possible if it weren’t for some of Trump’s key failures — which makes China the real winner of the Trump presidency.
Top Photo | U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping are greeted by children waving flowers and flags during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Nov. 9, 2017. (AP/Andy Wong)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in Middle East and Asian affairs