Hong Kong television commentator Wu Jun observed recently that despite Donald Trump’s anti-Beijing rhetoric, he “could in fact be the best president for China.” The Chinese analyst is right: A Trump presidency could open the way for China’s strategic dominance in Asia and elsewhere.
Wu’s comment was focused on Trump’s mercantilist style, evoking a world in which Trump and President Xi Jinping, two “big guys,” might sit around a table at Mar-a-Lago and cut deals without worrying about human rights. “The Republican Party is more practical and Trump is a businessman who puts his commercial interests above everything else,” Wu said .
But there’s a deeper, more dangerous way in which Trump might be an enabler for Chinese ascendancy. His policies would play into China’s narrative about the world — and undermine the foundations of U.S. power in Asia, even as they are bolstering a rising China.
Let’s start with the impact of a Trump presidency on the Muslim world. A South Asian chief executive of a global company put it bluntly: “There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and they won’t forget what Trump said” about banning Muslim immigrants to the United States. He predicted that Muslims would turn away from a Trump-led United States — not just Iraqis and Syrians, but Malaysians and Indonesians, too. The beneficiary of this global rebalancing would be China, he warned.
President Obama recently noted the national-security damage caused by Trump’s comments. “Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country — that is not just a betrayal of our values, that’s not just a betrayal of who we are, it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism,” Obama said in a graduation speech at Rutgers University.
Trump’s “America First” policies would reinforce the drift away from U.S. global leadership — in ways that would benefit China. The most obvious example is Trump’s disparagement of the trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (though he’s hardly the only miscreant here). As the Wall Street Journal noted, citing the views of Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, “An American failure to ratify TPP would bring about the very thing critics of the trade deal complain about: a more empowered China and bad terms for U.S. goods and services.”
New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, described the risk for the United States of the TPP’s collapse, in a comment cited by the U.S. trade representative’s office: “If [the United States] abdicates leadership in the region, that role will get filled. It has to. In the end, these economies aren’t going to stand still.”
China has already started creating its own network for economic and political influence, anticipating the retreat of U.S. power. In some eerie ways, these Chinese plans are reminiscent of the institutions through which the United States established its dominance in the post-1945 world. As an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Beijing proposes the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. According to a Brookings Institution study, within five years, it could be lending $20 billion annually for regional development, roughly equivalent to what the U.S.-led World Bank lends.
China has its own version of the Marshall Plan, too, to supplant a waning American vision of internationalism. Beijing’s blueprint for land and maritime dominance has the unlikely moniker “One Belt, One Road.” It envisions transportation and infrastructure networks stretching from China by land to Moscow and Rotterdam, and by sea across Southeast Asia and along the African coasts, notes the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China’s global ambition has its hubristic side; The Post’s Simon Denyer recently chronicled the empty cities in western China that have been built in overeager anticipation of a new Silk Road. But China is big and rich enough to make mistakes. Says Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, “If ‘One Belt, One Road’ meets Chinese planners’ expectations, the whole of Eurasia, from Indonesia to Poland, will be transformed in the coming generation.”
China speaks the language that, in the U.S. age of expansion, was known as “manifest destiny.” This outward-looking vision of development and trade creates its own momentum. It becomes a focal point for private lenders and equity markets.
Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” is incoherent because it is accompanied by inward-looking, reactive policies. Like Trump’s own businesses, it’s more a franchising operation than a plan for real investment and growth. Trump may indeed have a formula for greatness — but the “winner” in this story would likely be Beijing.
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