China: Out For Itself, or New Global Leader?

The Sino-American relationship has always been one of immense importance, shakily carried on throughout the years, but built off a mutual need for each other. Over the last 40 years, China has flourished, integrating itself into the global market and engaging with increasing confidence in the global economic order. ‘Today, China’s GDP per capita, for a population of almost 1.4 billion, exceeds that of at least one EU member state, and its overall GDP — calculated in purchasing power parity terms — exceeded that of the US for the first time at the end of 2016.’ However, despite China’s economic breakthrough, it is still seen by other states as a developing country, staying more or less in the background in an uneasy standoff with the United States. Recently, however, following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, China has become bolder on the international stage, exerting its economic strength to stake claims to power and influence across the globe.

‘Typically, the visit of a Chinese leader to the United States provides the stage for analysts to reflect on the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to defend the liberal international order against China’s challenge. Not this time.’ In fact, this time around we found President Xi making underlying stabs at ‘previous U.S. follies of ‘chasing reckless profits’ and poor financial market regulations that ushered in the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis,’ and going so far as to suggest even that leaders across the world should be worried about Trump’s economic ambitions and aims.

Richard Fisher, via Flickr

Image courtesy of Richard Fisher, via Flickr, © 2009, some rights reserved.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this January, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his desire for China to be the ‘champion of globalization,’ claiming that China ‘could be the leader and protector of global free trade.’ His speech has thus far provided the clearest example that China wishes to take a major role on the global stage. Underlying his remarks was the additional suggestion that implied that China would serve — ironically, given China’s fiercely protectionist track record — as the free-market, economically open alternative to the ever more isolationist United States under Trump. Whilst this may not be the ideal outcome, especially for the EU, the U.S. politics bears the blame for giving China this opportunity to portray itself in such positive light on the world stage. ‘Trump is pushing China and Europe together,’ said one Beijing-based diplomat, citing China’s support for trade, willingness to be involved in the fight against climate change, and role in the United Nations, which are areas Trump is seeming to pull out of.

Xi’s speech focused primarily on economic growth rather than security. This distinction is important, as China will not be able to fill the global shoes of the US without taking on more of a leading role in global security and defence. Additionally, China’s economic assertiveness raises questions about China’s ultimate goal: does it aim to adopt, and even defend, the current global order, or will China attempt to revise the western-organised system to suit its own goals? In the past, China has been one of the much more hesitant countries to integrate into international society and adopt the global order, preferring instead to regulate its domestic affairs on a much more inwardly serving level. So what does this sudden change of heart mean? Ultimately, ‘China is a revisionist power, wanting to expand influence within the system. It is neither a revolutionary power bent on overthrowing things, nor a usurper, intent on grabbing global control.’

Going forward, Europe needs to be cautious about maintaining good relations with both the United States and China. The US’s role is uncertain and China is often fickle in its international dealings, so Europe is facing challenges from both. Europe has to involve the US in its security while holding China accountable on its promises in the international community.