AT his inauguration on January 20, US President Donald Trump delivered an inward-looking speech in which he promised to “make America great again,” without any reference to its friends and allies overseas.
Then Trump withdrew the US from what he called the “job-killing” Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trading bloc that sought to raise standards while excluding China. He also declared the North Atlantic alliance “obsolete.”
This led to howls in Washington and overseas that the US was ceding ground to an expansionist China. Even so, the Chinese declared modestly that they had little interest in succeeding the US as global leader, with a senior Chinese diplomat, Zhang Jun, director-general of the Chinese foreign ministry’s international economics department, asserting that China doesn’t want to be the world leader but, if nobody else wanted that job, then China would, reluctantly, play that role.
Scarcely six weeks have passed since then. But now, China is showing a definite interest in becoming the world leader, if not a global hegemon.
On February 17, Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party leader and president, delivered a speech in which he asserted that Beijing should “guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonably new world order.” He also declared that China should “guide the international community to jointly maintain international security.” These two goals have been referred to as “two guidances.”
However, 11 days later, when Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, he seemed to move much closer into the mainstream of American politics, including reaffirming multilateral security alliances.
“We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War, and defeated communism,” he said. He praised America’s allies for meeting their financial obligations to the alliance and added that “the money is pouring in.”
He also reaffirmed alliances with countries in the Middle East and the Pacific, calling on them not only to “pay their fair share of the cost” but also “to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations.”
“Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead,” Trump said in one key passage. “All the nations of the world, friend or foe, will find that America is strong, America is proud and America is free.”
This key paragraph was an echo of the inaugural address of Barack Obama in 2009 when he said: “We are ready to lead once more.” The second sentence was an echo of John F. Kennedy’s much quoted inaugural address: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans….”
Using the same metaphor, Trump asserted: “That torch is now in our hands, and we will use it to light up the world.”
It must be remembered that it was Kennedy who said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That firm assertion was, if nothing else, a declaration to the world of American leadership.
Of course, Trump still needs to mend fences with other friends and allies such as Mexico and Australia. A few ill-chosen words on Twitter could undo all this, and already there are signs that he is letting trivia get in the way. But for now, it seems, he has cast himself as a much more conventional American President.
Thus, China may find its new-found desire to guide the globe into a new world order blocked by Washington.
Of course, when Xi Jinping and Donald Trump finally meet, as they surely must, whether at the G-20 in Hamburg next August or before that, each man will have an opportunity to take the measure of the other. Their personal chemistry will then come into play.
Xi may wish to borrow a page from the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, who developed a personal rapport with Trump on the golf course. The Chinese, in their crackdown on corruption, have frowned on golf clubs and elite memberships. But surely,they will keep open a few high-class golf clubs to entertain decadent Western leaders addicted to the game.
Unless, of course, there will be no room for golf in a Chinese world order.
But, as of now, things are still in a state of flux.