Failing to come to grips with one's decline as the other rises is absurd, argues Sholto Byrnes
Can Trump spare us a Cold War with China?
The election of Donald Trump was one of those remember-where-you-were-when moments. Work at the think tank in which I work had ground to a halt that day as everyone followed the delegate count, still incredulous that the reality TV star and real estate mogul could be about to pull off the victory that no one had thought possible.
Fast forward 12 months, and while Mr Trump’s cheerleaders on the right proclaim reasons to celebrate (“One year in White House, Trump delivers on his economic growth promise,” whoops the New York Post, while Fox News declares that “Trump shows America is through being a chump in Asia”), much of the established commentariat and former officials are in dismay.
This is not just over investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, the unfilled positions in the State Department, and the general turbulence that has surrounded a "Potus" who had never been elected to any office before.
No, as he embarks on a major trip to East Asia, the president is also accused of having no real plan and of being more than likely to put his foot in it with undiplomatic utterances or tweets. An administration adviser told Politico magazine: “The potential for error is huge.”
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Far from reassuring American allies and friends, goes the argument, Mr Trump’s tour is more likely to remind them that the US has ceased to be the reliable superpower whose umbrella they could seek shelter under. A China ever-ready to invest and support friendly governments, meanwhile, will step forward to fill the regional void, a move that coincides handily with president Xi Jinping’s plan to restore his country to “great power” status by 2050. And this – American waning, and Chinese waxing – is nearly always presented as very bad news.
This is quite apart from the fact that this rests on the assumption that China’s rise is somehow malign – despite the lack of evidence to support the contention that Beijing intends to assert itself militarily and forcefully beyond any land or territorial waters that it considers its own. This also presumes that a US-led international order is superior to any other, which concedes, firstly, that there is such a thing as universal values, and secondly, that they just happen to coincide exactly (and very conveniently) with Western values. The greater point, from a realist’s perspective, is that this hand-wringing flies in the face of history.
We know that – barring unforeseen cataclysms – the US is in long-term decline as the world's hegemon. That is inevitable. China's rise is equally inevitable. Complaining about this strikes me as ridiculous as Britons who couldn't accept giving up their empire. At the time, there were probably quite a lot of people who agreed.
A few decades on, they just look silly, and not just that; they were clinging to a principle - that it was right for the UK to rule a large part of the rest of the world - that no one would defend now. Who is to say that in 20 or 30 years people will not look back and wonder how it was that the US, the pompously self-declared “exceptional nation”, had decided that it had the right to impose its will on so many countries around the world?
In the meantime, and specifically in the context of Mr Trump’s Asia tour, there are more pressing questions, not least, to put it bluntly, whether he will be taken for a ride by Beijing. To begin with, Mr Trump’s doctrine of “principled realism” may actually fit the current multipolar world rather better than the hegemonic idealism of the past.
In a much analysed op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this May, national security adviser HR McMaster and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn wrote that the president had a “clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage”. Mr Trump wants to make America great. Mr Xi wants to do the same for China. A transactional approach in which it is tacitly accepted that neither party wants to rule the world (or at least not for now) could see “win-win” results for both.
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Moreover, it is not in China’s interests to humiliate the US president. Critics will carp, but he is sure to return home with all sorts of “deals” that he can present as victories in terms of trade and investment. There is always the possibility of Mr Trump inadvertently escalating the situation with North Korea, with which he will get less help from China than he would like; but then that scenario pertains wherever he is in the world.
In the medium term, the chorus of American hawks who foresee (or desire?) conflict between the two powers will probably be disappointed. For why does there have to be a struggle for supremacy between the two? In the past, there was an ideological divide in which American leaders cast China not just as wrong, but as verging on evil, at the very least highly oppressive, and felt obliged to pipe up about it.
One senses that Mr Trump’s mind is less troubled by such matters, or is even deeply invested in the rest of the world at all, so long as its leaders agree with him on terrorism and trade. If that means the two great countries can more easily co-exist while on their different trajectories, we should perhaps be grateful. The West has already needlessly created another Cold War with Russia. If Mr Trump saves us from the burden of creating another one with China, he will deserve more credit than he currently gets.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia