Two years ago, some European and US experts gathered to discuss China in an elegant English country house. The setting was seductive, but the mood was dark. Two years into Xi Jinping’s presidency, China’s politics were turning away from the liberalising trend of the previous three decades, towards a hard-edged nationalism that was discomfiting China’s immediate neighbours and their western allies.
China was getting more powerful but less friendly, squeezing foreign competition out of its internal markets, throwing its weight around the South China Sea, crushing internal dissent and enforcing loyalty to the regime.
The mostly liberal-minded scholars had assumed that the spectacular success of China’s economic opening and partial political relaxation would lead to a more open society, greater rule of law and more political inclusion. They were dismayed to discover that Xi’s mission was not to steer China towards political pluralism and tolerance, but to shore up the Communist party, in defiance of what the scholars had assumed was an inevitable trend: that an emerging middle class would always force a political opening.
If that was not going to happen, given China’s vastly increased influence in the world, a global conflict between the systems, values and norms of the pluralist, democratic United States and China’s Communist party seemed inevitable. It would be unpleasant, but nobody doubted that US values would prevail.
The group discussed whether China could succeed. What might go wrong? Would China reset the world’s economic and security arrangements in its favour? What could the US do to defend its norms and values beyond concluding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the huge US-led Pacific trade initiative, and shoring up political security guarantees to its close regional allies, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, to limit the growth of China’s influence?
The one scenario not discussed was that the US would tear up its own rules, leaving the field open to China to consolidate its dominance of the Asia Pacific and extend its global influence. Nobody even imagined such a far-fetched possibility. Donald Trump’s actions seem to have surprised Beijing as much as they have dismayed America’s allies. Now the challenge for China is how to reap the benefits and contain the inevitable damage.
Is Donald Trump making China look great again?
February 3, 2017 by Leave a Comment