China’s economic and military rise is now generally seen as hostile to the interests of the United States. The problem is complicated, however, by China’s clever exploitation of rising nationalist and anti-globalist sentiment in the United States.
While the Trump administration has worked to reverse former President Obama’s internationalist institutional commitments, China has presented itself to nervous Western elites as the new guarantor of global commercial and environmental projects. The United States needs to oppose this powerful thrust.
Fortunately, the cornerstone of China’s bid to replace the United States as globalism’s indispensable nation is so big and risky that America’s challenging task is not insurmountable.
China’s wager is on its so-called Belt and Road Initiative—the largest international economic undertaking since the Marshall Plan. It will stretch networks (or tentacles) of trade and infrastructure out from China well beyond the Eurasian landmass and across oceans and seas.
And it will cost a pretty penny. Between now and 2050, if all goes to plan, some $8 trillion, for 7,000 projects in over 60 countries, is on the line. Then there are the environmental costs. Hundreds of endangered species and dozens of vulnerable ecological areas would be affected. The risks strongly suggest that, rather than “soft power” or “smart power” seeing China through the colossal expansion, much harder political power will have to do.
But that’s where China faces the stiffest opposition. Even the most Trump-resistant are already bristling at the way Beijing is throwing its strategic weight around.
“I have no objections to the fact that China wants to trade,” Germany’s Angela Merkel recently warned at a press conference. “We are committed to free trade.” But, she added, “economic relations being linked with political questions” would “not be in the spirit of free trade.” France’s Emmanuel Macron has objected that interest in Chinese investment is “sometimes at the expense of a European interest.”
These concerns will only strengthen as China’s influence sharpens and extends deeper into the West. Of course, free trade has always intersected with political matters. But Western political norms are being replaced with belated recognition of the nature of China’s bid for global power—not just economic power, but pronounced cultural, political and military influence. Westerners are right to worry that international commerce and financial activity might be pried away from free trade and turned into something more like an older form of a patronage network.
It’s not yet clear, however, who is best suited to lead the pushback. The Trump administration is not likely to mount a strong bid to reclaim the internationalist mantle. But relative to Europe, the United States is powerful and influential enough to hang back a bit longer. Nevertheless, U.S. nationalism should not get in the way of ceding global dominance to China. European efforts to check Beijing’s reach should be supported, and partnerships in Asia, especially with India and Japan, should work toward the same end.