As Donald Trump orders a worldwide retreat from the international stage, China is stepping up to fill the gap. Evan Osnos has a long and well-written New Yorker piece exploring just what this means.
In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.
And China has embarked on history’s most expensive foreign infrastructure plan. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, it is building bridges, railways, and ports in Asia, Africa, and beyond. If the initiative’s cost reaches a trillion dollars, as predicted, it will be more than seven times that of the Marshall Plan, which the U.S. launched in 1947, spending a hundred and thirty billion, in today’s dollars, on rebuilding postwar Europe.
This projection of “soft” power, whatever else we may think of it, makes obvious sense for a nation attempting to assert itself as a world power. We have long used such foreign investments to court potential allies and to stabilize regions teetering between our own values and less palatable ones. It is not without risks. Likewise, the steep investment in new technologies was until recent decades understood in this nation to be one of the primary sources of our national wealth. Most world powers understand that international influence can only be achieved with national wealth; national wealth comes from an educated citizenry producing and exporting expensive goods; such markets require steady innovation in order to maintain a national edge, in the production of those goods.
So there’s nothing nefarious about China doing any of these particular things. (Laying claim to reefs reengineered into faux-islands, on the other hand, and other projections of military force are considerably more controversial, and the nation’s dismal human rights record itself tends to get exported along with its cash, providing solace to anti-democratic nations that favor similar abuses.) National and international investment is precisely how other nations have achieved their own status as world powers; China would be foolish to do otherwise.
The other half of this, and the half that should alarm Americans considerably more at the moment, is that the Chinese government has Donald Trump’s number. Like other world leaders, they are finding Trump both profoundly ignorant of international issues and easy to manipulate. Among the many, many alarming quotes from Osnos’s sources:
Yan said that America’s strength must be measured partly by its ability to persuade: “American leadership has already dramatically declined in the past ten months. In 1991, when Bush, Sr., launched the war against Iraq, it got thirty-four countries to join the war effort. This time, if Trump launched a war against anyone, I doubt he would get support from even five countries. […]”
Shen went on, “China knows Trump can be unpredictable, so we have weapons to make him predictable, to contain him. He would trade Taiwan for jobs.”
During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, Chinese officials noticed that, on some of China’s most sensitive issues, Trump did not know enough to push back. “Trump is taking what Xi Jinping says at face value—on Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea,” Daniel Russel, who was, until March, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told me. “That was a big lesson for them.” […]
Russel spoke to Chinese officials after the Mar-a-Lago visit. “The Chinese felt like they had Trump’s number,” he said. “Yes, there is this random, unpredictable Ouija-board quality to him that worries them, and they have to brace for some problems, but, fundamentally, what they said was ‘He’s a paper tiger.’ Because he hasn’t delivered on any of his threats. There’s no wall on Mexico. There’s no repeal of health care. He can’t get the Congress to back him up. He’s under investigation.”
The Trump clan appears to “directly influence final decisions” on business and diplomacy in a way that “has rarely been seen in the political history of the United States,” the analyst wrote. He summed it up using an obscure phrase from feudal China: jiatianxia—“to treat the state as your possession.”
Well, can’t argue with that.
On one hand, it may be better for the world that Trump is indeed so very transparent. World leaders have learned to ignore his tantrums; world leaders are so fully aware of the man’s stupidity that they no longer try to tease meaning from his various word-fits. And there is indeed at this point even debate over whether Trump could mount certain military actions even if he wanted to, or whether he would be blocked by his own staff, Congress, or generals themselves.
But it renders the American government, indeed, a “paper tiger” for the foreseeable future; international diplomats cannot presume the United States will or will not take any concrete act, no matter what their American contemporaries claim, because all parties understand that those American contemporaries are stymied by a president who cannot hold a thought in his head for longer than a single television show.
We shouldn’t particularly be surprised, though, that international diplomats were quickly able to discern Trump to be precisely as shallow, stupid, and prone to both flattery and grift as our own political experts had been warning. It has always been obvious; even the man’s friends have said the same. The main problem with Trump is not necessarily his unpredictability or his penchant for bizarre claims; it may be the ease with which this nation’s competitors can manipulate him. Even the North Korean government has his number, and North Korea have been misinterpreting American politics for decades.