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Beijing’s Bid for Global Power in the Age of Trump
“America First” Versus China’s Strategy of the Four Continents
By Alfred W. McCoy
image above: Visual Capitalist, from “The world’s top economy: the US vs China in five charts”
WN: As usual, Dr. McCoy’s trenchant analysis proves compelling, sage, hugely informed, and immensely helpful.
Trump’s “America First” appears as mad pipe dream juxtaposed with China’s ascendancy. Trump, long since unrivalled as Planet Enemy Number One and Ultimate Ugly American, is also beyond contest the World’s Colossal Fool. (It’s amazing what an all-out embrace of a narcissistic lifestyle can do for a man… “Thou fool” is indeed sadly the biblical phrase (Luke 12) that comes to mind with reference to Trump.)
On the realpolitik side of that duality, Washington constructed a four-tier apparatus — military, diplomatic, economic, and clandestine — to advance a global dominion of unprecedented wealth and power. This apparatus rested on hundreds of military bases in Europe and Asia that made the U.S. the first power in history to dominate (if not control) the Eurasian continent.
Even after the Cold War ended, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned that Washington would remain the world’s preeminent power only as long as it maintained its geopolitical dominion over Eurasia. In the decade before Trump’s election, there were, however, already signs that America’s hegemony was on a downward trajectory as its share of global economic power fell from 50% in 1950 to just 15% in 2017. Many financial forecasts now project that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s number one economy by 2030, if not before.
In this era of decline, there has emerged from President Trump’s torrent of tweets and off-the-cuff remarks a surprisingly coherent and grim vision of America’s place in the present world order. Instead of reigning confidently over international organizations, multilateral alliances, and a globalized economy, Trump evidently sees America standing alone and beleaguered in an increasingly troubled world — exploited by self-aggrandizing allies, battered by unequal trade terms, threatened by tides of undocumented immigrants, and betrayed by self-serving elites too timid or compromised to defend the nation’s interests.
Despite such grandiose claims, each of President Trump’s overseas trips has been a mission of destruction in terms of American global power. Each, seemingly by design, disrupted and possibly damaged alliances that have been the foundation for Washington’s global power since the 1950s. During the president’s first foreign trip in May 2017, he promptly voiced withering complaints about the supposed refusal of Washington’s European allies to pay their “fair share” of NATO’s military costs, leaving the U.S. stuck with the bill and, in a fashion unknown to American presidents, refused even to endorse the alliance’s core principle of collective defense. It was a position so extreme in terms of the global politics of the previous half-century that he was later forced to formally back down. (By then, however, he had registered his contempt for those allies in an unforgettable fashion.)
During a second, no-less-divisive NATO visit in July, he charged that Germany was “a captive of Russia” and pressed the allies to immediately double their share of defense spending to a staggering 4% of gross domestic product (a level even Washington, with its monumental Pentagon budget, hasn’t reached) — a demand they all ignored. Just days later, he again questioned the very idea of a common defense, remarking that if “tiny” NATO ally Montenegro decided to “get aggressive,” then “congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Moving on to England, he promptly kneecapped close ally Theresa May, telling a British tabloid that the prime minister had bungled her country’s Brexit withdrawal from the European Union and “killed off any chance of a vital U.S. trade deal.” He then went on to Helsinki for a summit with Vladimir Putin, where he visibly abased himself before NATO’s nominal nemesis, completely enough that there were even brief, angry protests from leaders of his own party.
During Trump’s major Asia tour in November 2017, he addressed the Asian-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) in Vietnam, offering an extended “tirade” against multilateral trade agreements, particularly the WTO. To counter intolerable “trade abuses,” such as “product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies,” he swore that he would always “put America first” and not let it “be taken advantage of anymore.” Having denounced a litany of trade violations that he termed nothing less than “economic aggression” against America, he invited everyone there to share his “Indo-Pacific dream” of the world as a “beautiful constellation” of “strong, sovereign, and independent nations,” each working like the United States to build “wealth and freedom.”
Responding to such a display of narrow economic nationalism from the globe’s leading power, Xi Jinping had a perfect opportunity to play the world statesman and he took it, calling upon APEC to support an economic order that is “more open, inclusive, and balanced.” He spoke of China’s future economic plans as an historic bid for “interconnected development to achieve common prosperity… on the Asian, European, and African continents.”
As China has lifted 60 million of its own people out of poverty in just a few years and was committed to its complete eradication by 2020, so he urged a more equitable world order “to bring the benefits of development to countries across the globe.” For its part, China, he assured his listeners, was ready to make “$2 trillion of outbound investment” — much of it for the development of Eurasia and Africa (in ways, of course, that would link that vast region more closely to China). In other words, he sounded like a twenty-first century Chinese version of a twentieth-century American president, while Donald Trump acted more like Argentina’s former presidente Juan Perón, minus the medals. As if to put another nail in the coffin of American global dominion, the remaining 11 Trans-Pacific trade pact partners, led by Japan and Canada, announced major progress in finalizing that agreement — without the United States.
In addition to undermining NATO, America’s Pacific alliances, long its historic fulcrum for the defense of North America and the dominance of Asia, are eroding, too. Even after 10 personal meetings and frequent phone calls between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump during his first 18 months in office, the president’s America First trade policy has placed a “major strain” on Washington’s most crucial alliance in the region. First, he ignored Abe’s pleas and cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and then, as if his message hadn’t been strong enough, he promptly imposed heavy tariffs on Japanese steel imports. Similarly, he’s denounced the Canadian prime minister as “dishonest” and mimicked Indian Prime Minister Modi’s accent, even as he made chummy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and then claimed, inaccurately, that his country was “no longer a nuclear threat.”
It all adds up to a formula for further decline at a faster pace.
China as Global Hegemon?
Although a withering of Washington’s global reach, abetted and possibly accelerated by the Trump presidency, is already underway, the shape of any future world order is still anything but clear. At present, China is the sole state with the obvious requisites for becoming the planet’s new hegemon. Its phenomenal economic rise, coupled with its expanding military and growing technological prowess, provide that country with the obvious fundamentals for superpower status.
Yet neither China nor any other state seems to have the full imperial complement of attributes to replace the United States as the dominant world leader. Apart from its rising economic and military clout, China, like its sometime ally Russia, has a self-referential culture, non-democratic political structures, and a developing legal system that could deny it some of the key instruments for global leadership.
In addition to the fundamentals of military and economic power, “every successful empire,” observes Cambridge University historian Joya Chatterji, “had to elaborate a universalist and inclusive discourse” to win support from the world’s subordinate states and their leaders. Successful imperial transitions driven by the hard power of guns and money also require the soft-power salve of cultural suasion for sustained and successful global dominion. Spain espoused Catholicism and Hispanism, the Ottomans Islam, the Soviets communism, France a cultural francophonie, and Britain an Anglophone culture. Indeed, during its century of global dominion from 1850 to 1940, Britain was the exemplar par excellence of such soft power, evincing an enticing cultural ethos of fair play and free markets that it propagated through the Anglican church, the English language and its literature, and the virtual invention of modern athletics (cricket, soccer, tennis, rugby, and rowing). Similarly, at the dawn of its global dominion, the United States courted allies worldwide through soft-power programs promoting democracy and development. These were made all the more palatable by the appeal of such things as Hollywood films, civic organizations like Rotary International, and popular sports like basketball and baseball.
China has nothing comparable. Its writing system has some 7,000 characters, not 26 letters. Its communist ideology and popular culture are remarkably, even avowedly, particularistic. And you don’t have to look far for another Asian power that attempted Pacific dominion without the salve of soft power. During Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia in World War II, its troops went from being hailed as liberators to facing open revolt across the region after they failed to propagate their similarly particularistic culture.
From its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China gave primacy to the party and state, slowing the growth of an autonomous legal system and the rule of law. A test of its attitude toward this system of global governance came in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled unanimously that China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea “are contrary to the Convention [on the Law of the Sea] and without lawful effect.” Beijing’s Foreign Ministry simply dismissed the adverse decision as “invalid” and without “binding force.” President Xi insisted China’s “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights” were unchanged, while the state Xinhua news agency called the ruling “naturally null and void.” Although China might be well placed to supplant Washington’s economic and military power, its capacity to assume leadership via that other aspect of the delicate duality of global power, a network of international organizations grounded in the rule of law, is still open to question.
If Donald Trump’s vision of world disorder is a sign of the American future and if Beijing’s projected $2 trillion in infrastructure investments, history’s largest by far, succeed in unifying the commerce and transport of Asia, Africa, and Europe, then perhaps the currents of financial power and global leadership will indeed transcend all barriers and flow inexorably toward Beijing, as if by natural law. But if that bold initiative ultimately fails, then for the first time in five centuries the world may face an imperial transition without a clear successor as global hegemon. Moreover, it will do so on a planet where the “new normal” of climate change — the heating of the atmosphere and the oceans, the intensification of flood, drought, and fire, the rising seas that will devastate coastal cities, and the cascading damage to a densely populated world — could mean that the very idea of a global hegemon is fast becoming a thing of the past.
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, the now-classic book which probed the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over 50 years, and the recently published In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, and John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands.
Copyright 2018 Alfred W. McCoy
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