THe Trump-Xi Counterbalance By Malcolm Cook from ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore

The Trump-Xi Counterbalance
By Malcolm Cook, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

In the deepening and expanding US-China rivalry, the presidency of Donald Trump may be a net asset to the Chinese side and the presidency of Xi Jinping to the American side.

At first thought, each judgment may seem counterintuitive at best or misguided and provocative at worst. The Trump administration has identified China as the most serious strategic rival rather than a potential ‘responsible stakeholder’ partner; ended the balance between contesting and cooperating with China distinctly in favour of the former; and imposed aggressive unilateral trade remedies against Chinese economic practices deemed unfair over the Obama administration’s use of the World Trade Organization. Chinese economic growth is hurting from these Trump administration actions; Huawei is being shut out of or constrained in key 5G markets; and senior Trump administration officials regularly rail against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. How could this be a net asset to China?

President Xi is much more willing than his predecessor to use the Chinese party-state’s growing power to aggressively shape the domestic, regional and global environments in the interest of the Communist Party of China, making it seemingly a more formidable challenger to the USA. For the first time, the Chinese party-state is actively seeking to provide regional and global public goods with noticeable success. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank already has more members in total and non-regional members from the European Union than the much older Japan-led Asian Development Bank. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative now involves more than 140 other countries by some counts and is binding many of them to much closer long-term relationships with China. The ineffectiveness of American protestations against both Chinese bids at leadership is a measure of China’s growing and America’s declining relative power. American pressure against countries allowing Huawei to participate in their 5G critical infrastructure may prove the same.

In the South China Sea, the Xi administration has been able to brush off the July 2016 unanimous ruling by the international arbitration tribunal against China’s excessive claims with little public protestation by the other claimants or ASEAN. Instead. Beijing has been able to accelerate the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea negotiations with ASEAN. Some may see this as a reward for Chinese unlawful behaviour. How could this be a net asset to America?

The ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, as did the 2014 umbrella movement and the sunflower movement in Taiwan, vividly show that Xi’s China dream is more a nightmare for millions in Hong Kong and Taiwan who Beijing refers to as compatriots. Policy elite and public opinion in Southeast Asia, the southern flank in China’s peripheral diplomacy, also reflects high levels of distrust in China under President Xi. In a survey of policy elites in the ten Southeast Asian states published in 2019 by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, China was the least trusted major power “to do the right thing”. 45% of respondents thought “China will become a revisionist power with the intent to turn Southeast Asian into its sphere of influence”. Half of the Cambodian respondents opted for this gloomy outlook as did three-fifths of Singaporean respondents. Only 9% of total respondents thought China “will be a benign and benevolent power.”

Further away, the 2019 Lowy Institute public opinion poll in Australia showed a similar lack of trust in China. Only 32% of respondents trust China to “act responsibly in the world”, a massive 20% plummet from the 2018 result. 77% instead agreed that “Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region, even if this affects our economic relationship.” This despite 40% of Australian exports going to China. China’s ongoing ‘detention diplomacy’ against Canada has seen Canadians’ view of China shift sharply from that of an economic opportunity to a political threat. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, more Canadians (67%) have an unfavourable view of China than Americans (60%). The Swedes were even more negative at 70%. Only Japan was more unfavourably disposed towards China than Sweden among the 34 countries surveyed.

So much for Xi Jinping claims of a ‘community of common destiny for all mankind.’ It appears that China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour under the Xi administration in many countries is eroding China’s persuasive power and ability to translate its growing economic power into support for Chinese leadership ambitions and potential. Instead China’s growing economic power and willingness to use it punitively risks realizing the China threat thesis.

The Trump administration’s much harder line on China has received little pushback from the Democratic side of the House strongly suggesting an American bi-partisan consensus on China as the most serious systemic rival. Counterfactually, a Hillary Clinton administration may well have made the same strategic judgement on China. However, it is very unlikely that it would have adopted a similar approach to confronting the China challenge as the Trump administration.

As a Chinese scholar astutely observed as a recent IFRI conference held under the Chatham House rule of non-attribution, the Trump administration’s unilateralist mercantilist foreign policy, led by the president himself, undercuts three of America’s strongest bases of power and acceptance of US leadership; America’s leading position in multilateral institutions, global network of military alliances and partnerships, and self-image that is widely held beyond the USA of itself as a proponent and defender of liberal economic and political values. The fluttering of the star and stripes flags at recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong pay witness to the enduring potency of this image of the USA. Instead of playing to America’s strengths and China’s weaknesses in the rivalry, the Trump administration often seems to be doing the opposite.

Policy elite and public opinion outside the USA suggests declining trust in the world’s most powerful country and American global leadership. In the 2019 ISEAS survey, the USA also faced a significant trust deficit among most Southeast Asian policy elites. 68% of respondent believed US engagement with Southeast Asia has declined under the Trump administration compared with 13% who agreed with Trump administration assertions to the opposite. 51% did not trust the US to “do the right thing” against only 24% who did. The 2019 Lowy Institute poll recorded that trust in the USA has fallen moderately from 2017, with two-thirds of respondent agreeing that President Trump has weakened the alliance relationship. Fewer Australians trust President Trump than President Xi “to do the right thing” with Trump only scoring 25% against Xi’s 30%. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern topped the list at 88%.

From Sydney to Stockholm to Vancouver, the Xi administration’s actions are eroding trust in China and aligning more countries closer with the Trump administration’s view of Chinese actions as the main source of threat to the global order. Led by the president, the Trump administration’s foreign policy though is making it harder to trust and collaborate with the US. Fortunately for USA, its current global leadership credentials are much higher than those of China. In a 2019 Pew Research Center poll all 18 countries outside of the USA polled saw the USA as a more dependable ally than China, often by very large margins.
Also, Trump will only be president for one to five more years. Xi may be president for life.

Malcolm COOK
18/12/2019

Biography
Dr Malcolm Cook is a Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. There he focusses on the Philippines and Southeast Asian states’ relations with major extra-regional powers. From 2003 to 2010, he was the inaugural East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and then the inaugural Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide. Before that, he was a lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Malcolm has worked in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore.

ISEAS poll:
https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/TheStateofSEASurveyReport_2019.pdf

Lowy Institute poll:
https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/lowy-institute-poll-2019

Pew Research Center poll on views of China:

People around the globe are divided in their opinions of China

Pew Research Center poll on views of US and China as dependable allies https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/05/u-s-is-seen-as-a-top-ally-in-many-countries-but-others-view-it-as-a-threat/

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