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In many ways, President Trump's star turn in Davos was prefigured by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Last year, Xi took center stage at the World Economic Forum, delivering a defense of globalization and the liberal world order that was hardly typical of Chinese leaders. “Pursuing protectionism is just like locking oneself in a dark room,” Xi said to widespread agreement.

At a time of pronounced anxiety in the West — fueled by the then-nascent Trump presidency and the challenge of right-wing populists in Europe — Xi's remarks offered a degree of comfort to the global elite cloistered in Davos.

A year later, the situation has changed. Few outside China took Xi's liberal-globalist act at face value, an instinct later validated by China's purported rigging of the economic system and Xi's deepening authoritarianism. Moreover, the luster of Western populism has somewhat faded. National elections in various European countries dented the challenge of the far right, while Trump himself has shed much of his populist clothing, embracing tax legislation that thrills many of the plutocrats assembled in this snowbound Swiss town.

But Xi, perhaps unwittingly, threw down a gauntlet that Trump and numerous other leaders have picked up. Virtually every world leader who spoke this week in Davos, beginning with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, weighed in on the “populism vs. globalism” debate shadowing the Trump era. And all, in various ways, articulated a defense of globalization and policies that recognize and foster international ties.

Xi himself was a no-show, but his chief economic adviser, Harvard-trained Liu He, took his place on Wednesday. Liu reiterated Xi's talking points from the previous year and spoke at length about China's plans to liberalize its own economy and “further integrate with international trade rules” as it transitions from an export powerhouse to a consumer market. It seemed Trump administration officials paid no heed: On that same day, they continued to hammer China for its supposedly unfair trade practices.

In Davos, politicians and business leaders of various stripes scoffed at the Trump administration's recent move to slap tariffs on imports of solar energy components and large washing machines — the former a move against China, the latter harmful to South Korea, a close U.S. ally.

“Until recently, the U.S. made a clear assumption that its security and economic interests were part of its matrix of behavior in the Asia-Pacific,” wrote Rana Mitter, a historian of China at Oxford University and a participant at Davos. “Now it is unclear what message the Trump administration is trying to send.”

Indeed, no one knows to what extent Trump will hold on to the angry nationalism that has animated much of his rhetoric, if not all of his actual policies. There's a suggestion, as there has been many times over his first year in power, that he'll show a new face. “He wants to shatter the myth that he is only an 'America first’ president,” said Anthony Scaramucci — a Davos veteran who had a brief, ill-fated stint as Trump’s communications director, to Bloomberg News. “That’s not the case. He is a globalist. He has a duality to his personality. He’s here to disrupt things, which he does a reasonably good to great job of.”

But while the “disruption” posed by Trump did feature prominently in many conversations here this week, it hardly dominated proceedings. China's vast investments around the world and increasing geopolitical assertiveness were frequent subjects of panel debates and chatter at cocktail parties. And in discussions of Trump, China was often the elephant in the room.

“China has a strategic vision that is long,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “We are lacking in that regard.” The Republican senator added that Trump's gleeful decision to jettison the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an Obama-era trade pact that knitted together a whole swath of the Asia-Pacific on terms favorable to Washington — was a “damaging” one that left the United States in a “weakened position.”

“It was a geopolitical gift to China,” said Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and prominent commentator on global affairs, referring to the TPP withdrawal.

And while Trump may cling to a triumphal narrative of “America first," the days when American primacy could be taken for granted are gone. That's something the rest of the world already knows.


Liu He speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 24. (Gian Ehrenzeller/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE)

“China is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Jeff Radebe, one of the most senior ministers in the South African government, to Today's WorldView. “The size of their economy, when compared to America, is still a little bit small. But when you look at the plans that President Xi Jinping and the ruling party have, it does appear that China will be a leading country in the world in the near future.”

Meanwhile, Radebe noted, the United States “is inward-looking,” led by a president with little knowledge of the world and a penchant for offending much of it. That's unfortunate, he argued, given the need “to ensure that we build this world together, so that big countries like China and America should not fear each other's greatness.”

“The big story of the 21st century is the return of China and India,” said Mahbubani. Trump's embrace of myths of American exceptionalism and preeminence won't do much to reckon with that reality. “We have taken the last 200 years of history as the norm, the global norm. But actually the last 200 years have been a major historical aberration,” Mahbubani told Today's WorldView, speaking of Western colonialism and a century of American supremacy. “That aberration is coming to an end.”

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