Some said it would come by sea. Others worried it would come from outer space. But the most serious Chinese challenge to US leadership is happening on what used to be America’s home court: the court of global public opinion.
Three days before US President Donald Trump told the world in his inaugural address “that from this day forward it is only going to be America first,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that China was committed to developing “an open global economy, where the opportunities and benefits of openness are shared, where mutual interests are realized and everyone wins.”
After the inauguration, President Trump also made it clear that global concerns about climate change are no longer a concern of the US government. Xi, on the other hand, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “a responsibility to our children, grandchildren and future generations we must shoulder.” Optimistically, Xi noted that addressing climate change is “in accord with the trend of global development.”
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, told the Washington Post, “I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural.” It’s a suggestion he may come to regret. The world’s reaction to President Trump’s inaugural was decidedly negative. Xi’s defense of an environmentally sustainable and integrated global economy was well-received in China and internationally.
Xi makes the case for economic globalization
China’s president spoke for nearly an hour and in great detail about economic globalization and its pitfalls. He described globalization as “the inexorable result of objective needs and scientific progress.” He argued it “accelerated the circulation of commodities and capital, the progress of science and culture and the interaction of people from every nation.”
But Xi also admitted that international economic integration is “a double-edged sword” that globalizes economic difficulties along with economic benefits. Xi acknowledged there were “anti-globalization voices” that raised important questions “we should ponder and take seriously.”
The three major problems Xi identified suggest he believes the United States bears the lion’s share of the burden for globalization’s shortcomings, although he never mentions the United States explicitly.
The first is the slowdown in economic growth and international trade that followed the US financial crisis.
The second is what Xi called a “lag in global economic governance.” Developing nations now account for a larger share of the global economy and are the largest drivers of global economic growth. Yet a few large developed nations still dominate international economic institutions, which, according to Xi, makes it “difficult to adapt to new changes in the global economy.”
Xi argued inequality is the third and most serious flaw in a global economy where “the wealth of the richest 1% of the global population exceeds the combined wealth of the other 99%.” Xi emphasized this final point, saying:
“More than 700 million people live in the midst of extreme poverty. For many families, having a warm and safe place to live, sufficient food and steady work is still a kind of extravagant hope. This is the greatest challenge facing the world today, and an important reason for the social turmoil in some nations.”
Citing Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, Xi said that “Our real enemies are not neighboring countries, but hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice.”
And Xi drew a sharp contrast between China’s hopeful approach to these problems and the defeatism of unnamed others:
“Human history tells us the presence of problems is not to be feared. What is to be feared is the unwillingness to face problems directly, to search for and find a train of thought that resolves problems. In the face of the opportunities and challenges of economic globalization the correct choice is to fully utilize every opportunity, to cooperate in confronting every challenge and to shepherd the direction of economic globalization.”
President Trump responds
President Obama was fond of telling the Chinese that history was on the side of the United States. President Trump used his inaugural address to present a grim rebuttal:
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
President Trump depicts US global leadership as a debilitating burden. The gains of global trade, heralded by his Chinese counterpart, were, according to the new US president, “ripped from the homes” of middle class Americans and “redistributed across the entire world.” The President cannot seem to imagine the possibility that global trade created new wealth in the United States and the rest of the world at the same time.
President Trump argued that decades of US-led global integration led to an “American carnage” he would end with “a new vision” of America’s role in the world that will effect “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration and on foreign affairs.” It is a zero-sum vision supported by new US policies that “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” Trump’s “America first” policies are intended to make sure that the United States is “winning again.” Although Trump hopes to preserve and cultivate allies, he described the core of his protectionist vision as “a total allegiance to the United States of America.”
Which message has greater appeal?
If the United States turns its back on the world, the world could respond in kind. The consequences of the new US administration’s ideological atavism—Bannon called it “Jacksonian”—are impossible to predict. But President Trump’s bet against the continuation of economic globalization pits 5% of the world’s population against the other 95%. Left to fend for itself, without the US direction they’ve experienced for decades, the rest of the world may decide it is better off without it.
That does not mean the world must or will follow China. And Xi, despite US characterizations of his speech as an act of political opportunism, told the international audience in Switzerland, after extolling the successes of China’s economic development, “Many paths go through Rome. None should take their own development path as the only one, much less force one’s own development path on others.”
Xi does not appear to be contesting US global leadership. He is contesting the idea that the world needs a leader.
Global apprehensions about China, combined with global respect for the United States, has obscured much of what Xi has been saying about the state of the world and its future since he assumed office in 2012. While many may remain skeptical about Xi’s commitment to the ideas he discussed at Davos, his speech—especially when compared with President Trump’s inaugural address—should, at the very least, ensure China’s views on global governance get a more careful hearing in the court of world opinion.
Xi could help China’s case by being as broadminded at home as he was in Switzerland. International anxieties about China are rooted in concerns about the way the Chinese government handles domestic disagreements. A more benevolent and trusting approach to its own citizens—a greater willingness to allow them to express their opinions and participate in public life—would go a long way towards convincing the rest of the world the Chinese government is now strong and confident enough to comprise when considering disputes with its neighbors and the rest of the world.