Q&A: China will test Trump's 'America First' policy

  1. Xi now the world's most powerful man?
  2. New era, new ideology for China
  3. "Trump doesn't have that much leverage on China"

U.S. President Donald J. Trump heads to Asia at a time when his bellicose “America First” rhetoric confronts the rise of China as a regional and global superpower – potentially upsetting post-World War II U.S. leadership in the region.

From Friday to November 14, Trump is on his first tour of Asia — the longest official trip of any president since 1992. He goes to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. But it is the rise of China and its economic, military and diplomatic weight that sets the backdrop for the entire expedition.

WikiTribune talked to Richard McGregor, a noted author on modern China whose 2011 book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Party Rulers was No. 1 on a much-disputed list of books Trump had himself read to get up to speed on modern China. McGregor recently followed that book with Asia’s Reckoning: The Struggle for Global Dominance.

North Korea’s rush to join the nuclear missile club is expected to dominate the immediate agenda: Trump has pressured China to rein in on the hermit kingdom. But it’s the underlying strength of China and of its leader Xi Jinping that colors the way the trip will be seen against the backdrop of history — not least the opening of Washington’s relationship with Beijing by his Republican predecessor Richard Nixon in 1972.

The Economist recently described Xi as “the world’s most powerful man.” As Trump pushes the policy of ‘America First’, President Xi in this three-hour opening speech at the 19th Party Congress declared that it’s time for China to take “center stage” in the world, espousing the ‘Chinese Dream.’

Q: With Xi being more expansionist in his speech about China taking “center stage,” how does that clash with the “America First” program of Donald Trump?

A: In a sense, the ‘America First’ is a retreat. This [trip] is really about the U.S. global leadership role. It’s not a head-on clash [between the U.S. and China], but it’s a clash of influence. Trump is not only ill-disciplined himself, but his instinct for many decades is about withdrawing the U.S. from the world rather than engaging with it.

His government doesn’t actually have much of a policy because he hasn’t fulfilled all manner of policy positions throughout the government. There’s no clarity in any case so it’s just a giant mess.

What’s the significance of Xi dropping or appearing to drop Deng Xiaoping’s view on keeping Chinese foreign power discreet — that is to “bide its time and hide its light” as you mentioned in your article?

I said some years ago that that’s been disappearing into the rear-view mirror for some time. It’s been sort of discarded in a really clear and thunderous fashion for the last few weeks. China has always had this foreign policy of so-called “non-interference” in other states. And once you get as big and influential, and as large a trading power as China, those ’50s non-interventionist slogans just don’t fit anymore. So I think they’re really trying to get a different ideology for a new era.

Why did they espouse the non-interference ideology then and not now?

Because with China you can’t hide anymore. You’ve got the second biggest economy in the world, in ten years it’ll probably be the biggest. China has a lot of interest it wants to assert and it’s always wanted to but it never had the capability — it does now. That includes the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

There’s also the signature geo-political initiative, called the Belt and Road, which is about building trade ties and political influence with the Eurasian heartland all the way to Europe. So it’s no longer about hiding, it’s about getting out there and building influence.

You mentioned the South China Sea. Do we have to accept the nine-dash line [which indicates a huge expansion of Chinese reach] is de facto reality given the Chinese build up and the apparent reluctance of the U.S. to challenge that?

I don’t know if the U.S. accepts it, really. Certainly, nobody formally recognizes it. The issue with the South China Sea is that I think the Chinese are increasingly assertive, maybe even dominant there. They have territory disputes with Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. They obviously want to handle those disputes bilaterally because it puts them in a much stronger position, they’ll be the stronger counter-party.

Many of the other South East Asian nations, the U.S. and the like want to handle it in a multilateral fashion, which would give China less advantage. But I think since they built the artificial islands in the last two years, China has the upper-hand. But nobody has formally accepted the nine-dash line.

So, if the nine-dash line is permanent, how do you think the rest of the countries during Trump’s visit to Asia will regard the United States now?

Trump’s going to South Korea and Japan, that’s more about the East China Sea and North Korea. He’s going to Vietnam and the Philippines, they’re both rival claimants in the South China Sea, so I think it will come up there. But I think the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is going to be an even bigger issue on this trip. At the moment, the South China Sea has died down a little bit but there’ll be some language of a joint communication with Vietnam.

Trump will presumably try to push Xi on North Korea. How much leverage does he actually have on Kim-Jong un?

The Chinese dislike the North Koreans and they probably don’t mind having an opportunity to press [them] a little bit harder. I expect we’ll see some announcements of extra new sanctions but they won’t be the sorts of sanctions that will bring North Korea to its knees, because China doesn’t want to do that. There’ll be more pressure but not overwhelming pressure. Trump does not have that much leverage. China in theory does, but it’s the sort of leverage they don’t want to use too much lest North Korea collapses.

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