Today's Editorial

07 December 2017

Shifting balance of power

Source: By Harsh V Pant: Deccan Herald

When US President Donald Trump landed in China as part of his mega five-nation Asia tour, a grand welcome awaited him as the Chinese government left no stone unturned in making sure that Trump's ego was massaged sufficiently enough so that his transactional avatar came to the fore and his China-bashing side was relegated to the margins. But make no mistake; the balance of power between the two major powers is already shifting to China's advantage.

President Trump stands significantly weakened with a string of legislative defeats in Washington, loss of popularity, and turmoil within his administration. Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has risen as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The contrast is striking. The challenge for the US is to sell its ideas and shore up its credibility in a region that views Trump as a non-serious leader and Xi as seemingly visionary. This is at a time when Xi is challenging the fundamentals of the extant regional and global order.

At the recently concluded 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi said it was time for his nation to transform itself into "a mighty force" that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues, underlining this as "a new historic juncture in China's development." He also made it clear that "no one political system should be regarded as the only choice, and we should not mechanically copy the political systems of other countries." For Xi, "the political system of socialism with Chinese characteristics is a great creation," thereby leading the charge against those who had assumed that democracy would be the natural outcome of China becoming more prosperous.

Xi insisted that China did "not pose a threat to any other country", but he is not ready to budge on contentious issues like the South China Sea. This assertion of China's foreign policy was reflected in his mention of Beijing's highly controversial island-building campaign as one of the key accomplishments of his first term. Beijing did not seek global hegemony but "no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests" said Xi, forcefully reminding the world that this assertion of Chinese interests in the region is at the heart of the present turmoil in the larger Indo-Pacific.

The Trump administration has been hardening its stand vis-Ã -Vis China but its credibility remains questionable. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a recent speech, made it clear that Washington would continue to challenge China on fundamental values and the US can never have the kind of relationship with an autocratic China that it can with a democratic India. But how Trump evolves this into a coherent Asia policy; remains far from clear.

During his tour, Trump managed to send some conflicting messages. In Tokyo, he raised the pitch against North Korea, and in Seoul, he lowered it a bit. Trump targeted Kim Jong-un directly and suggested that "despite every crime you have committed against god and man", the US was prepared to resolve the crisis diplomatically. His back and forth in so far as a visit to the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea was concerned was also a sign that decisions on such a crucial visit were not being made with great thought. Members of the Trump administration had initially argued that he would not visit the heavily fortified border zone, saying the practice was "becoming a little bit of a cliche, frankly." Seoul remains concerned that the Trump administration might be tempted to deal with the North Korean regime unilaterally.

Trump berated Japan, one of America's closest allies, for what he called "unfair" trade practices, accusing Tokyo of taking advantage of the US with its trade practices, especially in the automotive sector. His bombastic suggestion to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to shoot down ballistic missiles from North Korea drew a pushback from Abe, who sensibly made it clear that North Korean missiles would be shot down only "if necessary."

The real test remains China. Beijing was hoping that a deal could be struck with Trump by welcoming him lavishly. Trump and his wife Melania even visited the Forbidden City, becoming the first foreign leader to dine there since 1949. This unprecedented step was not taken by China to show how much it likes Trump. It was a calculated move to ensure that Trump did not go back to his China-bashing agenda.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had called Beijing "a currency manipulator" and accused it of stealing US jobs. Even in his speech to the South Korean parliament, Trump had pointedly targeted China and urged "all responsible nations" to isolate North Korea and fully implement UN sanctions, downgrade diplomatic ties, and sever trade and technology ties. But in China, Trump lavished praise on Xi and laid the blame on his predecessors for unfair trade advantages going to China.

As Beijing had hoped, Trump's visit went without any major hiccup. Whether Trump would succeed in reassuring American allies and partners about Washington's reliability as the regions economic and security guarantor is a question that had not been answered even by the end of his visit. For that, the region will have to wait and watch how Trump's rather shambolic foreign policy evolves in the coming months. Regional powers confront an increasingly assertive Beijing and they don't have the luxury of distance to manage China's rise. Democratic powers of the region can shape the regional balance of power by working together to preserve the rules-based order, one which can enhance broader regional security and prosperity.




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