Over the last year, scholars, pundits, and policymakers interested in China have rhetorically asked whether US President Donald Trump will make President Xi Jinping’s China “great again.” There is now mounting evidence that the answer to that question is “yes.” Since his inauguration, there are a number of ways in which Trump has contributed to China’s rise, and Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on power.
To begin with as we, and others have suggested elsewhere, Trump is making China great again by withdrawing from global responsibilities so that space is left for Xi’s China to step into. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has involved announcements of withdrawal from international responsibilities and agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), UNESCO, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and UN talks on migration. He has threatened to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and NAFTA.
At the same time, Xi’s China has pursued the opposite policy, investing in exactly the kinds of overseas initiatives that built America’s global influence, including foreign aid and investment, overseas security, and education. The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ – China’s massive connectivity project and Xi’s flagship foreign policy – has fortuitously emerged in this newly opened space.
This new leadership is not simply a question of filling the gaps left by US withdrawal. Instead, the Belt and Road Initiative exemplifies a new Chinese bid for world leadership, where networked capitalism and the Chinese national unit fuse to reinforce Chinese government narratives which portray China as the new trailblazer of global capitalism—thus illustrating and justifying a new Sinocentric order in East Asia and beyond.
The Chinese Party-State has long sought to convince the world, and the Chinese population, that Chinese leadership offers the world a better and more harmonious alternative to American power politics. With Trump in power, that suggestion is beginning to look a lot more credible to a lot more people around the world. As was recently argued, the US-led liberal international order is in crisis under the Trump presidency, which has little room for soft power. In that space, Xi is actively suggesting that China provides ‘a new option for other countries.’
The Chinese Party-State has long sought to convince the world, and the Chinese population, that Chinese leadership offers the world a better and more harmonious alternative to American power politics.
In this way, Trump is contributing to making China great again by taking on the role of the “bad” and “selfish” hegemon that enables Chinese leaders to portray their country as the better alternative.
What we haven’t discussed is the extent to which Trump is simultaneously helping Xi’s nationalist project by recognising China and its leadership as not opposite, but the same. On numerous occasions, Trump has identified China as protectionist, nationalist, and self-serving, rather than as a champion of international democracy and win-win cooperation. The remarkable thing is that he has done so approvingly.
When Trump visited Beijing in November 2017, he provided Xi with a fantastic propaganda opportunity by repeatedly praising the supreme leader of the China Party-State. In an address to business leaders in Beijing, joined by Xi, he blamed the ‘unfair’ trade deficit between the two countries on previous US leaders, and suggested that taking advantage of others, as he implied China had, was a good thing:”After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens? I give China great credit.”
When President Xi recently declared that he was seeking to abolish the limit on presidential terms in China (which he now has), Chinese and international media made much of Trump’s (apparently joking) comment on lifetime presidency, that “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.” In China, such apparent endorsement from the US President will give a modest boost to Xi in this controversial move for increased power. Most of all, it will make clear that the US President will not present an obstacle to this move from one-Party rule to one-person rule.
Whether this endorsement of Xi’s power-grab leads to ultimate Chinese ‘greatness’ is of course questionable. There are ample reasons to think that this move may make China less stable, as opposed to more, in both the short and the long term. For now though, Trump has added to the ways in which he is supporting Chinese nationalism, expansionism, and assertiveness on the world stage.
Featured image credit: ‘President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan, applaud and thank the performers at a cultural performance at the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, November 9, 2017, following a State Dinner in their honor, in Beijing, People’s Republic of China’, by Andrea Hanks. CC-BY-3.0 via The White House.