The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why China will be able to sell itself as the last liberal great power

China's rising levels of hypocritical power.

China’s President Xi Jinping sits on the podium while people leave at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17. (Michel Euler/AP)

Hey, the new Office of the U.S.Trade Representative website is up! Let’s take a look to see what it says about opening up trade opportunities for American firms and consumers:

[The] new America First trade policy will make it more desirable for companies to stay here, create jobs here, pay taxes here, and rebuild our economy. Our workers and the communities that support them will thrive again, as companies compete to set up manufacturing in the U.S., to hire our young people and give them hope and a real shot at prosperity again.

So that sounds … interesting, but almost entirely unrelated to what trade representatives traditionally do. I guess Trump’s USTR will be dedicated to reducing trade with the rest of the world.

This is entirely consistent with what President Trump wants to do: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” Trump has backed up his words with actions, signing an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast between the Trump administration’s rhetoric on globalization and China’s recent rhetoric on the same subject. The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin notes that China is making rhetorical moves to assume the mantle of global economic leadership:

China is prepared to take the helm of the global economy if Western nations abdicate their leadership role, a top Chinese diplomat said Monday, days after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged in his inaugural address to put “America first.”
“If it’s necessary for China to play the role of leader, then China must take on this responsibility,” Zhang Jun, head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s office of international economic affairs, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing.” …
“If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front,” he said.

For the record, I warned you all back in October that the Chinese would seem like the last great liberals in the world. And now it appears to have come to pass:

There is no doubt that on a lot of dimensions, China has acted like a responsible stakeholder in the liberal international order. But now is the moment when the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts feels compelled to point out the serious problems with this narrative. As the Associated Press pointed out, China is pretty far away from being a free-trader:

While Xi’s Davos speech may have seemed a refreshing contrast to Donald Trump’s parochialism, in reality, China is “aggressively pursuing mercantilist and protectionist policies,” said Victor Shih of the University of California at San Diego.
In his remarks, Xi said it is “simply impossible” to stop the international flow of goods and services, but China is currently engaged in “the most sophisticated and extensive exercise in capital control in the world,” he added.

If you don’t trust the Associated Press, read either Elizabeth Economy or Brad Setser on this subject. China does not come close to embodying the liberal hegemon that many want to bestow on Beijing.

Here’s the troubling thing, though: I’m not sure that Chinese hypocrisy on these issues will matter all that much.

A few years ago Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore wrote a nifty little essay about the “hypocritical power” of the United States. This referred to the ability of the United States to articulate a liberal vision for global order while violating those liberal principles on a semiregular basis in its actions. They explained:

Most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. pre-eminence, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.
This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone.

Back in 2013, Farrell and Finnemore worried that actors like WikiLeaks would expose American hypocrisy to the point where other countries would cease to buy into the liberal order. It turns out the bigger problem would be that the United States under the Trump administration would voluntarily abandon that order.

An actor possesses hypocritical power if they can articulate a vision that attracts other actors, even if they do not practice what they preach. In the wake of an American retreat from the global economy, advocates of globalization will look for a new standard-bearer. And that actor will inherit a windfall of hypocritical power.

It is possible that China lacks the material capabilities to substitute for American economic power. But it is likely that many countries will not care only about that. A large fraction of the world still believes in the liberal order that the United States helped to erect 70 years ago, even if the current U.S. administration does not. They will look to any country willing to publicly defend that power.

The bipartisan approach to China for the past 30 years has been to do everything possible to get Beijing to want to preserve the global rules of the game, as designed by the United States. China has not always complied in practice, but it has mostly done so in its rhetoric. The final outcome of this approach is a cruel irony: As America turns inward, the rest of the world turns to China.