Last week I was sitting in a lecture on power politics when a fellow student posed the following question: “Professor, if you were a rising world power such as China, what would you need to do to compete with a country that has an economy and military as massive as the U.S.?”
His response was revealing: you hope that the hegemon makes mistakes, like undermining its long-term economic power by preventing overseas workers from contributing to the economy, dismantling international agreements and alienating allies.
Following this line of reasoning, a quick review of President Trump’s first year demonstrates that “America First” will not actually make America great again, but provide an opportunity for China to take our place on the world stage. For instance, on its current trajectory, China’s G.D.P. is predicted to overtake the U.S.’s by 2050. Its rapidly increasing share of the world’s G.D.P. is attributable to increasingly sophisticated and diversified exports, and increasing the role of state-owned enterprise. China has also focused its foreign policy on strengthening ties both regionally and globally. In contrast, President Trump has threatened some of the U.S.’s greatest allies, complicated trade and climate deals, restricted certain countries’ travel rights and insulted countless nations.
To understand the advantageous situation China now finds itself in, we must look at recent foreign policy decisions in both nations, as well as the inherent benefits of diplomacy over militarism.
Dismantling Valuable Alliances
Trump rose on a platform that promised to protect American consumers from the evils of “damaging” trade agreements, decades-long alliances, and immigration.
With less than a year and a half under his belt, Trump has picked a (Twitter) fight with the mayor of London and reposted Britain’s alt-right party’s Islamophobic videos—prompting a citizen-led petition to ban Trump from the U.K. that surpassed 1 million signatures. Trump has shoved the Prime Minister of Montenegro out of his way, angered France with insensitive remarks post 2016 terrorist attacks, and hung up on the Prime Minister of Australia—one of America’s closest allies. He has repeatedly belittled and mocked our geographic neighbors and caused mass outrage over an explicit comment aimed at numerous developing nations. Trump has clearly wasted no time alienating the U.S.’s allies.
China, on the other hand, has focused on a series of diplomatic moves that have reinvented its foreign policy, supported regional development programs, facilitated globalization, and gained strategic pull with former U.S. allies. For example, during a recent trip to China meant to boost trade post-Brexit, Theresa May announced a joint education deal and expressed a desire to expand cooperation between the two nations.
The 21st century has seen China’s rapid economic growth, as the nation’s share in the world’s G.D.P. steadily rises. In recent years, China has had impressive economic achievements, focusing on high investment schemes and seeing tertiary exports overtake its other sectors in 2011. In 2017, China experienced positive net exports for three consecutive quarters. The US experienced growing trade deficit—the highest since 2012.
In 2017, China made headway on diplomatic relations by introducing its Belt and Road Initiative. This ambitious plan joins 68 participating countries – spread across three continents— through railway, highway, and sea lanes, and aims to increase cooperation throughout the region. It has been called the biggest foreign spending program since the Marshall Plan— a post-WWII American initiative implemented to jumpstart European economies— and drew the largest number of foreign representatives to the country since the 2008 Olympics.
In the same year, Trump’s backpedal away from the Paris Climate Agreement— accepted by 195 countries in an astounding diplomatic success— allowed China to earn international praise over its dedication to the agreement. The U.S. and China are the world’s largest economies and largest emitters, and as such their participation is crucial to the Agreement’s success. When coupled with Trump’s 2016 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this decision has vastly decreased American influence in East Asia, reduced U.S. control over trade, and enabled China to take the lead on globalization efforts.
What Trump Doesn’t Understand: Diplomacy Matters
Some of our biggest successes have been achieved through diplomatic work. Since WWII, we have pursued policies of international cooperation and international security. The Marshall Plan – arguably one of our greatest achievements—allowed the U.S. to strengthen alliances, facilitate European economic recovery and build soft power through generous contribution. Such diplomatic efforts could, if implemented now, curb China’s efforts to surpass the U.S. both in economy and additive power.
Trump’s aggressive isolationist policies have turned diplomacy into an “us against them” zero-sum game. He seems to think that a show of force and a militarist view will pound everyone else into submission, making the U.S. “great again” by default. On the contrary, if the U.S. wishes to strengthen its own economy, unemployment levels, living standards, and remain relevant in the international sphere, the surest way to do so is to encourage global collaboration and cooperation through agreements and free trade. History shows that isolationism and protectionism do not increase strength, and the present shows that putting “America First” is likely to shoot China to the top.