Can China overtake the United States to lead the world?
That was the question posed by the state-run Global Times tabloid in Beijing on Monday.
If the United States under Donald Trump gives up its global leadership and withdraws into isolationism, will the rising superpower China replace it?
Ironically, in the past week, China has defended the system of global governance that the United States has done much to build.
Senior officials have urged Trump not to walk away from a global deal to address climate change, while President Xi Jinping told the Asia-Pacific region not to surrender to protectionist pressures but to recommit itself to globalization and free trade.
“Openness is the lifeline of the regional economy,” Xi said the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Peruvian capital, Lima, on Saturday.
The official Xinhua News Agency gushed that Xi’s speech put China and the region in the “vanguard” of a joint effort to revive the global economy.
Of course, the United States and China have sometimes used their power to ignore global rules, whether in sidestepping the United Nations to invade Iraq or in advancing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, China is defending the collaborative, rules-based order because it has benefited hugely from the system: Its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 gave an immense boost to Chinese exports but also provided a real incentive for domestic economic reforms.
Its 1.4 billion people also stand to lose heavily if the planet continues to warm sharply.
But is China prepared to accept the burden of leadership?
In 2014, President Obama accused China of being a “free rider” on the world stage, but there is no doubt that under Xi, the country has been taking a more forceful global role — launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014 and a “Belt and Road” regional development plan.
China’s influence will also expand if Trump fulfills his campaign promise to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim nations.
The TPP was a key element of Obama’s strategic rebalance to Asia, but his administration has given up on the idea of ratifying the deal in the lame-duck session of Congress.
China, meanwhile, has lost no time in pushing forward its vision for free trade in Asia, through a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a potential deal it has long championed that involves 14 Asian nations, plus Australia and New Zealand.
The RCEP would involve much lower standards for the environment, labor rights and intellectual property protection than the TPP and does not include the United States, potentially leaving U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage in Asia.
“There's no doubt that there would be a pivot to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership if the TPP doesn't go forward,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Vietnam has indicated that it will not ratify the TPP, and Malaysia has said that it will turn its attention toward the RCEP negotiations. Chile and Peru also have expressed interest in joining RCEP negotiations in light of the TPP’s problems.
But championing a regional trade deal is not quite the same as leading the world, and, on that score at least, China is not yet ready to take up the burden.
“China, to its credit, has always been open that at its current stage of development, it has no capability or ambition to replace the United States,” said Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. “It wants the U.S. to gradually relinquish some control and gradually make room for China. But it doesn’t want the U.S. to suddenly retreat — it doesn’t want to deal with the unpredictability and potential chaos that would go with that.”
Last week, China’s top envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, said the United States still needed to play a joint leadership role in combating global warming. For one thing, developed countries have proposed about $100 billion in annual support for developing countries by 2020, a commitment that depends on Washington’s participation.
More broadly, though, the Global Times argued that China is still no match for the United States, as it lacks the ability and psychological readiness to lead the world.
“If Washington withdraws from the Paris climate deal, China can stick to its commitment, yet it won't be able to make up for the loss caused by the U.S.,” it wrote.
“Or if the U.S. takes on an anti-free trade path, the messy consequences will be beyond China's ability to repair.”
Even in the Asia-Pacific region, China “chafes” against U.S. dominance, Xie said, “but a lot of foreign-policy experts privately admit that China has benefited from peace and stability under the current order.”
The Global Times concluded that it was unimaginable that China could replace the United States.
“So Sino-U.S. cooperation is the only choice for future global governance. For a long time to come, the leadership of the U.S. will be irreplaceable,” it concluded. “Meanwhile, China's further rise is inevitable.”