The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s inexorable rise is helped by Trump’s retreat

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The first stop on French President Emmanuel Macron's trip to China this week was, curiously, not Beijing. Macron arrived in the central Chinese city of Xi'an, a town fabled for its imperial tomb filled with terra-cotta warriors as well as its role as the historic gateway to the Silk Road. The French president was deliberately pandering to China's sense of its past.

“Our relationship is anchored in time, and in my opinion is based on civilization, in the sense that France and China are two countries with very different cultures but which both have a universal calling,” Macron told Chinese media. “They are two countries that have always been eager, across distances, to meet and recognize each other. It’s for all these reasons that I wanted to start my state visit in Xi’an — it’s a way to experience ancient China.”

Macron used the occasion to extend a hand to Beijing: “What I came to tell you is that Europe is back,” he said, signaling a contrast between the “America First” nationalism of President Trump and the openness of China's other interlocutors in the West. In turn, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed his desire to “protect multilateralism” and the pillars of the global economy.

The rhetoric is already a dramatic illustration of how far China has come. For decades, the ruling Communist Party has publicly groused about the “century of humiliation” endured by China at the hands of imperial European powers from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Resentment over this experience of colonial bullying and coercion, subjugation and war, remains a crucial plank of Chinese nationalism.

But it's being superseded by another, more confident nationalist narrative, one based in reasserting China's historical primacy. China's gross domestic product is projected to surpass that of the United States by the end of the next decade. The country's leadership sees its ambitious new economic projects — such as its vast “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative across the landmass of Eurasia — as tools to restore Beijing's traditional role as the leading trade power in Asia, casting a shadow over a network of lesser tributary states.

“Of the global powers that dominated the 19th century, China alone is a rejuvenated empire. The Communist Party commands a vast territory that the ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty cobbled together through war and diplomacy,” wrote Edward Wong, a former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times. “And the dominion could grow: China is using its military to test potential control of disputed borderlands from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, while firing up nationalism at home.”

China's critics see its assertiveness on the seas and geopolitical maneuvering from Africa to Central Asia as the work of an expansionist, authoritarian state flexing its muscles. Even Macron urged Beijing to be fair as it presides over the creation of the 21st century's new Silk Road. “These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals,” he said this week.

No serious thinker believes that China is about to supplant the United States as the world's leading superpower. But China's inexorable rise has been brought into sharper focus by the ostensible American retreat declared by Trump, who scrapped an Obama-era project of economic integration with Asia and has approached Xi and China with a largely incoherent set of agendas and impulses.

“With China’s economic footprint across the Asia-Pacific region already large, countries in the region are now increasingly concluding that the U.S. is consigning itself to growing economic irrelevance in Asia,” former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote last month. “U.S. financial institutions will, of course, remain important, as will Silicon Valley, as a source of extraordinary innovation. But the pattern of trade, the direction of investment, and, increasingly, the nature of intra-regional capital flows, are painting a vastly different picture for the future than the one that has dominated post-war Asia.”

This is not necessarily a source of jubilation among Chinese strategists. The Chinese economy flourished while the United States, with its far-reaching military presence, anchored the regional order in the Pacific. Beijing is not ready nor interested in replacing Washington in this global role.

“It seems Donald Trump’s view is: if China can take a free ride, why can’t we? But the problem is that the U.S. is too big. If you ride for free, then the bus will collapse,” Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University, said to the New Yorker's Evan Osnos. “Maybe the best solution is for China to help the U.S. drive the bus. The worse scenario is that China drives the bus when it’s not ready. It’s too costly and it doesn’t have enough experience.”

“I think Trump is America’s Gorbachev,” Yan Xuetong, the dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations, said to Osnos. That's not a kind reference, as the New Yorker journalist explained: “In China, Mikhail Gorbachev is known as the leader who led an empire to collapse.”

But there are still fears about what a budding Chinese empire means for the world, no matter when it fully arrives. Under Xi, hopes for Chinese political liberalization have vanished; the space for civil society has shrunk and China's rulers have set about crafting the most technologically sophisticated and far-reaching security state ever seen. Xi's rosy language of common dreams and a shared destiny belie a darker edge.

“Chinese citizens and the world would benefit if China turns out to be an empire whose power is based as much on ideas, values and culture as on military and economic might,” Wong of the Times wrote. “It was more enlightened under its most glorious dynasties. But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the United States on the global stage. It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void.”

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