Trump’s pol­icy of dis­en­gage­ment from the world is a god­send for China

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and au­thor. He is the host of CNN’s Fa­reed Zakaria GPS and writes a weekly col­umn for ‘The Wash­ing­ton Post’

WE do not yet have the of­fi­cial agenda for next month’s meet­ing at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, be­tween United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

But, after 75 years of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship on the world stage, we might be watch­ing the be­gin­ning of a han­dover of power from the US to China. Trump has em­braced a pol­icy of re­treat from the world, open­ing a space that will be ea­gerly filled by the Com­mu­nist Party of China.

Trump railed against China on the cam­paign trail, bel­low­ing that it was “rap­ing” the US. He vowed to la­bel it a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor on his first day in of­fice. But in his first in­ter­ac­tion with Bei­jing, he caved. Weeks after his elec­tion, Trump spec­u­lated that he might up­grade re­la­tions with Tai­wan. In re­sponse, Xi froze all con­tacts be­tween Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton on all is­sues, de­mand­ing that Trump re­verse him­self — which is ex­actly what hap­pened. (Per­haps co­in­ci­den­tally, a few weeks later, the Chi­nese govern­ment granted the Trump or­gan­i­sa­tion dozens of trade­mark rights in China, with a speed and on a scale that sur­prised many ex­perts.)

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s vi­sion for Amer­ica’s dis­en­gage­ment from the world is a god­send for China. Look at Trump’s pro­posed bud­get, which would cut spend­ing on “soft power” — from diplo­macy and for­eign aid to funds for in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions — by 28 per cent. Bei­jing, by con­trast, has tripled the bud­get of its For­eign Min­istry in the last decade. And, that doesn’t in­clude its mas­sive spend­ing on aid and de­vel­op­ment across Asia and Africa.

Just tal­ly­ing some of Bei­jing’s key de­vel­op­ment com­mit­ments, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s David Sham­baugh es­ti­mates the to­tal at US$1.4 tril­lion (RM6.2 tril­lion), com­pared to the Mar­shall Plan, which in to­day’s dol­lars would cost about US$100 bil­lion.

China’s grow­ing diplo­matic strength mat­ters. An Asian head of govern­ment re­cently ex­plained to me that at ev­ery re­gional con­fer­ence: “Wash­ing­ton sends a cou­ple of diplo­mats whereas Bei­jing sends dozens. The Chi­nese are there at ev­ery com­mit­tee meet­ing and you are not.” The re­sult, he ex­plained, is that Bei­jing is in­creas­ingly set­ting the Asian agenda.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to skimp on US fund­ing for the United Na­tions. This is mu­sic to Chi­nese ears. Bei­jing has been try­ing to gain in­flu­ence in the global body for years. It has in­creased its fund­ing for the UN across the board and would likely be de­lighted to pick up the slack as Amer­ica with­draws. China has al­ready risen to be the sec­ond­largest fun­der of UN peace­keep­ing and, as mag­a­zine’s Colum Lynch ob­serves, Bei­jing has more peace­keep­ers than the other four per­ma­nent Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­bers put to­gether. Of course, in re­turn for this, China will gain in­creased in­flu­ence, from key ap­point­ments to shifts in pol­icy through­out the UN sys­tem.

The first ma­jor act of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was to with­draw the US from the Tran­sPa­cific

SATUR­DAY, MARCH 18, 2017 Part­ner­ship, a treaty that would have opened up long­closed economies like Ja­pan and Viet­nam, but also would have cre­ated a bloc that could stand up to China’s in­creas­ing dom­i­na­tion of trade and eco­nom­ics in Asia. The TPP was, in Sin­ga­porean Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong’s words “a lit­mus test” of Amer­ica’s cred­i­bil­ity in Asia. With Wash­ing­ton’s with­drawal, even staunchly pro-Amer­i­can al­lies like Aus­tralia are now hedg­ing their bets. Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull has raised the pos­si­bil­ity of China join­ing the TPP, es­sen­tially turn­ing a group that was meant to be a de­ter­rent against China into one more arm of Chi­nese in­flu­ence.

Amer­ica’s global role has also al­ways meant be­ing at the cut­ting edge in sci­ence, ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture. Here again, Wash­ing­ton is scal­ing back while Bei­jing is ramp­ing up. In Trump’s pro­posed bud­get, the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nasa) and the na­tional lab­o­ra­to­ries face crip­pling cuts, as will many ed­u­ca­tional and schol­ar­ship ex­change pro­grammes that have brought gen­er­a­tions of young lead­ers to Amer­ica to be trained and ex­posed to this coun­try and its val­ues. Bei­jing, mean­while has con­tin­ued to ex­pand Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes around the world and now of­fers 20,000 schol­ar­ships for for­eign stu­dents to go to China. Its fund­ing for big sci­ence ex­pands ev­ery year. The world’s largest tele­scope is now in China, not the US.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion does want a big­ger mil­i­tary. But, that has never been how China has sought to com­pete with US power. Chi­nese lead­ers have pointed out to me that this was the Soviet strat­egy dur­ing the Cold War, one that failed mis­er­ably. The im­pli­ca­tion was: Let Wash­ing­ton waste re­sources on the Pen­tagon, while Bei­jing would fo­cus on eco­nom­ics, tech­nol­ogy and soft power.

Trump’s new na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, H. R. McMaster, once re­marked that try­ing to fight Amer­ica sym­met­ri­cally — tank for tank — was “stupid”. The smart strat­egy would be an asym­met­ri­cal one. The Chi­nese seem to un­der­stand this.

A man push­ing a stroller past a mag­a­zine ad­ver­tise­ment fea­tur­ing US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at a news stand in Shanghai, China, on Wed­nes­day. Trump is host­ing Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Palm Beach, Florida, next month.

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