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Transatlantic Take

Role Reversal in the Xi-Trump Summit

Photo credit: Out of Order

Photo credit: Out of Order

Typically, the visit of a Chinese leader to the United States provides the stage for analysts to reflect on the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to defend the liberal international order against China’s challenge.

Not this time.

With the Trump administration threatening to weaken its commitments to crucial pillars of the liberal order, and in some areas even to overturn them, the lead-up to Xi Jinping’s Florida trip has elicited commentary of a different flavor. After Xi’s Davos outing in January, in which he sought to position China as a “champion of globalization,” the world is now wondering, as ECFR’s François Godement recently noted, if “China could step in to lead, and what that would mean.”

Beijing does have a serious credibility issue. Last year there was an emerging consensus among Western policymakers not only that Chinese behavior in an assortment of trade and economic fields was undermining confidence in the global economic system, but that an exceptional response was required. Economists and businesspeople who once physically recoiled every time they heard the word “reciprocity” were reluctantly becoming its advocates when it came to dealing with China.

Yet Xi’s achievement — and Trump’s failure — has been in the reframing of the debate.

With its talk of “economic nationalism,” outright protectionism, and threats to the WTO, the Trump administration has achieved the implausible feat of making the United States appear the greater potential threat to the open global trade order than China — at least temporarily.

Clearly, no-one is being fooled into thinking that China has transmogrified into a paragon of anti-protectionist virtue. An op-ed by the German ambassador to Beijing captures the current tone in Europe — taking advantage of Xi’s “pro-globalization” language to push China on its commitments, while continuing to note the many aspects of Chinese behavior that are wildly inconsistent with this stance. But he gloomily notes that while “the future of US policy is unclear…it would be a huge surprise to see it morph into a champion of multilateralism” and as a result, “Germany, as well as the EU, is ready to intensify cooperation with China in order to keep globalization going.”

China’s main appeal is its conservatism. As the Economist notes in its visit preview: “China is a revisionist power, wanting to expand influence within the system. It is neither a revolutionary power bent on overthrowing things, nor a usurper, intent on grabbing global control.”

In normal conditions, China’s revisionism would be a profound concern in Europe too. During a period of populist insurgencies and deep uncertainty about the direction of US foreign policy, it is the fact that China is not a “revolutionary power” that becomes more salient - an argument I explore in more detail in previous piece for Out of Order, the “Great Powers and the Counter-Enlightenment”.

If the Trump administration’s foreign and economic policy takes on a more predictable and traditional quality, that would almost certainly shift, but with nervous U.S. friends and allies discreetly hedging their bets, it is clear that Beijing has an opening to consolidate a strengthened position for itself in the global order.

In the past, China has not always been very adept at taking advantage of these opportunities. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, for instance, instead of consolidating a reputation as a new pillar of the global system, Beijing’s hubristic and assertive behavior magnified the sense among many actors that it was a growing threat. This time, in fields ranging from trade to climate to the UN, China is playing its hand more effectively.

The Xi-Trump summit itself, which will be defined by North Korea and trade rather than questions of global order, is far from easy for China to navigate. As one Chinese analyst told CNN: “Trump may be …illogical or clueless about politics, but he knows that things have to change  —  and the only way to do so is through unconventional means. As he turns the world upside down, China must feel nervous.”

But U.S. friends and allies feel nervous too. And if the strange role reversal between the United States and China on their commitment to the maintenance of critical pillars of a stable global system  persists, Beijing may face a new set of burdens but it is also poised to reap many of the political rewards.

This piece has been adapted from the original blog post. You can read the original post in its entirety here.