Has Donald Trump Ceded Global Leadership to China’s Xi Jinping?

June 3, 2017, 2:54 PM UTC
Trump US China
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Since Xi Jinping’s pilgrimage to Davos last January, pundits the world over have hailed him as the new champion of globalization and open markets. It has become fashionable to invoke Xi as a foil for Donald Trump, contrasting his promises that China will “keep its door wide open” and “say no to protectionism” with the U.S. president’s defiant vows to close borders, build walls, re-write trade agreements and put “America First.”

Trump offered new fodder for that view this week with his petulant tour of Europe, his refusal to affirm the principle of mutual defense for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and his announcement Thursday that the U.S. is “getting out” of the Paris agreement on climate change.

Western commentators were quick to proclaim a changing of the guard. Columbia University economist Jeffery Sachs charged that in pulling U.S. support for the Paris accord, Trump was not only forfeiting global leadership, but leading America right out of the civilized world. In the Los Angeles Times Tracy Wilkinson saw Trump’s withdrawal from the climate deal as “the most concrete sign yet” that his America first foreign policy “has begun to disrupt the global order and ultimately could cede Washington’s dominant role on the world stage to China.” New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger called Trump’s climate decision a “strategic gift to the Chinese, who are eager to fill the void that Washington is leaving around the world on everything from setting the rules of trade and environmental standards to financing the infrastructure projects that give Beijing vast influence.” The Atlantic‘s Isaac Stone Fish declared China “the world’s most likable superpower.

But hang on a minute. Trump’s eagerness to cast aside the mantle of global leadership and Xi’s willingness to take it up are different things. Fish, at least, acknowledged the obvious, which is that “China is an illiberal, authoritarian nation” that has been run by the same party for seven decades—making it an unlikely global leader, at least for most Western countries. China has had little success in projecting “soft power” (despite considerable effort and investment), and has far less recent experience than the U.S. in managing global affairs. Indeed, since the 1980s, China has eschewed formal alliances with other nations as a matter of policy; the only two countries that come close to qualifying as China’s strategic allies are Pakistan and North Korea.

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And for all the lofty rhetoric about globalization and open markets the reality is Xi has tightened the flow of capital and investment across China’s borders since taking power, and tends to the demands of his domestic constituents no less carefully than Trump. On Friday, those constituents helped scuttle a plan for China and the European Union to issue a joint statement of support for the Paris climate accord at high-level trade talks in Brussels. China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, has said it will honor the Paris deal. But Chinese officials balked at European demands for trade liberalization and formal assurances that Beijing will scale back excess production by Chinese steel companies.

Or consider China’s new cybersecurity law which came into force on Thursday. China says the new measures are aimed at protecting the privacy of its citizens and fighting cyberterrorism. But companies from the U.S., Europe and Japan have decried the new law as thinly disguised “cyber-protectionism.” Critics say the new rules will raise costs disproportionately for foreign firms, force them to surrender source code, and give Chinese regulators unprecedented access to their data and technologies.

Those measures add to the myriad other restrictions on foreign technology firms in China. The list of global tech giants to have been banned or held to a token presence in China includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, eBay, PayPal, Netflix, Twitter and Uber.

Leaders of global firms operating in China say doing business there has become far more difficult in the five years since Xi became president. A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China found that more than 81% of its members feel China has become “less welcoming” to foreign businesses, up from 41% who felt that in 2013.

None of this is meant to endorse Trump’s lurch towards isolationism or detract from Xi’s pledge for an open China. It is rather to suggest that both men share a vision of global leadership that has far more in common than the pundits and their own rhetoric would have us believe.