NEW YORK — As China’s rapid rise presented a challenge to the United States, political leaders in Washington were confident that the American model for prosperity would triumph over the path pursued by their communist rival.
While China sought to win global influence through transactional, checkbook diplomacy, the United States offered a fuller package — not just financial investment but also security guarantees and leadership on human rights and the rule of law.
Now, President Trump prepares to face world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly this week in the middle of a fast-escalating, head-on trade war with China. It’s one that his critics say is being waged on Beijing’s terms, as the president has rattled U.S. allies and undermined partners, looked the other way on human rights abuses and cozied up to authoritarian leaders.
The upshot is a growing consensus that the United States under Trump is going it alone — a sharp break from the multilateral approach that leaders of both political parties have pursued since World War II.
Trump believes he is winning the trade dispute with Beijing, contrasting the record U.S. stock market highs with recent sluggishness in China’s economy. Economists warn that he could be underestimating the willingness of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated power, to play the long game.
Beyond that, however, the United States under Trump has surrendered ground in other areas: engaging in trade disputes with Europe, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and Canada; criticizing NATO; and withdrawing from the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The United States had long sought to manage China’s rise by pressuring it to become a more responsible global player and engage in multilateral institutions. Now it is the Trump administration that is turning away.
Last week, national security adviser John Bolton eviscerated the International Criminal Court, declaring that the autonomous body founded in 2002 in The Hague is “dead to us.” The White House also announced that Trump would skip three regional summits in Southeast Asia in November, the first time since 2013 that an American president has been absent.
In the past, American leaders believed “we could cede an absolute majority of the pie and trade that relative wealth for dramatically increased influence,” said Danny Russel, an Asia Society analyst who served as a high-ranking Asia policy official in the Obama administration. “But if we really are reverting to a more primitive barter system, then we lose that. Then we are competing on China’s terms — at a moment when China is on the upswing. Very few countries, if any, believe that of the two countries, America’s day is dawning.”
At the United Nations, aides said, Trump is prepared to amplify the message he foreshadowed on the same stage a year ago: a demand for other nations to respect the “national sovereignty” of the United States and one another. Aides said Trump’s presence at the U.N. conference — Xi is not attending — demonstrates his commitment to global partnerships. But the president has consistently sown doubt through his nationalist rhetoric and unilateral actions on trade.
“The forces opposing us in Washington are the same people who squandered trillions of dollars overseas, who sacrificed our sovereignty, who shipped away our jobs, who oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Thursday. “In 2016, the American people voted to reject this corrupt globalism. Hey, I’m the president of the United States — I’m not the president of the globe.”
In many ways, Trump’s “America First” message is one that Beijing understands. Since taking office in 2012, Xi has aimed to return China to a dominant role in Asia, a strategy he touted as the “Chinese Dream.”
In doing so, Xi has sought to elbow the United States and other global powers out of what Beijing considers China’s sovereign claims, which its leaders call “core interests.” Among them are the South China Sea, a crucial shipping corridor over which China has asserted maritime control, and Taiwan, the target of an intensifying campaign by Beijing to isolate the island diplomatically.
At the same time, China has signaled it would do business with other nations without calling for reforms of their style of governance or pressuring them on human rights.
China unveiled a trade agreement in Southeast Asia called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which lacks the type of labor and environmental protections that marked the TPP, envisioned as a higher-standard, 12-nation agreement, sans China, to reduce tariffs and establish new regulatory structures.
Chinese leaders also launched an ambitious “Belt and Road” foreign investment program aimed at distributing tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to countries, drawing them into Beijing’s political sphere.
The other countries “do not necessarily want Chinese influence,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But if there’s not an alternative, they will take the risk of longer-term economic dependence and maybe even growing debt in order to get the short-term benefits. I worry about that.”
In recent months, nations have wrestled with the consequences of accepting China’s economic largesse. Malaysia canceled two giant projects funded with Chinese cash over fears that they would bankrupt the country. By contrast, El Salvador, eager to cash in with Beijing, severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan — drawing a rebuke from the White House.
“Countries seeking to establish or expand relations with China in order to attract state-directed investment . . . may be disappointed over the long run,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Around the world, governments are waking up to the fact that China’s economic inducements facilitate economic dependency and domination, not partnership.”
But analysts said it will be difficult for the administration to pressure other countries into turning away from China.
Several weeks ago, the State Department temporarily recalled three ambassadors from Latin America countries that cut relations with Taiwan. That came as Xi was playing host to the leaders of 53 African nations in Beijing and pledging a new $60 billion investment and loan package for the continent.
“They’ll have a hard time pushing countries to make a choice,” said Brian Klein, a former State Department official who served in China and India. “China’s throwing around a lot of money.”
White House allies praised the harder line Trump has taken with Beijing. Daniel Blumenthal, an Asia policy official at the Pentagon in the George W. Bush administration, complimented the administration for strengthening security ties with Japan and confronting the North Korean nuclear threat.
On human rights, however, Blumenthal said Trump had missed an opportunity by failing to condemn the imprisonment of an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims languishing in “reeducation camps” in western China. The president also has said nothing in public about the persecution of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the United Nations labeled “ethnic cleansing.”
“The Chinese want to do a lot of business and diplomacy in Muslim-majority countries, and if you highlight a massive abuse of human rights, China would have to answer to that,” said Blumenthal, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
For countries assessing how to engage with the two economic behemoths, the uncertainty rests in the open question of whether Trump’s trade war is a tactical play to boost U.S. exports or a more strategic effort to punish China and make the American economy less reliant on its rival, said David Dollar, a Brookings Institution scholar.
On Fox News on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration is determined to force China “to behave in a way that if you want to be a power, a global power,” the country must respect “the fundamental principles of trade around the world — fairness, reciprocity.”
But Dollar, who served as a Treasury Department emissary to China from 2009 to 2013, said: “I don’t think the administration knows clearly what it’s doing. Other countries are confused. We’ve launched a lot of trade measures against other countries and sent a signal of withdrawal from the world.”