US — China relations and the crisis of liberal order

Nana de Graaff and Bastiaan van Apeldoorn

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump on the latter’s state visit to China, November 2017 | Credit: Shealah Craighead, Official White House Photo

Whose crisis?

Amidst the clamour over the erratic leadership of the Trump presidency, and the predicted end of a liberal international order, what tends to get overlooked is that there is, at root, a crisis of leadership within America’s economic and political elite. Trump is the symptom rather than the cause of this crisis, although he has arguably aggravated it. For decades the American power elite has been characterized by close entanglements between of the political and corporate elites, a power configuration that has become increasingly bound up with stagnant wages and widening inequality. Neo-liberal policies implemented at home have been mirrored by an ‘open door’ policy abroad, expanding free markets and maximizing the freedom of (above all) US capital — underpinned, crucially, by a globe-spanning military apparatus and US-centred multilateral institutions. Both these policies have reinforced the position of the power elite, with the top 1% becoming increasingly insulated from the rest of society. It is this which has generated the massive public discontent that has been mobilized by both the right and the left, and is one of the key reasons why Trump was elected.

Enter China

The crisis of elite leadership which Trump epitomizes, however, greatly accelerates a power shift from a world centred around Western power and built on US hegemony, to a more multipolar world order that includes non-Western powers — in particular China — that has been in the making for decades. From climate governance to trade, America’s retreat from multilateral agreements rolls out the red carpet for China . This opportunity to provide global leadership is not lost on the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been driving forward a signature shift in China’s foreign policy, from ‘keeping a low profile’ (tao guang yang hui) to ‘striving for achievement’ (fen fa you wei). Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement turned the US into something of a pariah (the next G20 summit was immediately recoined G19+1) and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the crown jewel in Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ — only had the effect of self-isolation: negotiations on free trade in the Pacific are now pursued without the US. China is stepping into this void created by the US, not with an explicit claim to global leadership, but with the convenient argument that it is just behaving as the ‘responsible stakeholder’ US foreign policy makers always pressured it to be. While former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping advised to: ‘bide our time’, the timing of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness couldn’t have been better and he is making the most of the unexpected helping hand from the US. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wryly wrote, Trump is ‘helping make China great again’.

Xi’s elite power concentration

The crisis and fragmentation of elite leadership in the US coincides with a strengthening and centralizing of elite leadership around the Communist Party and the leadership of its General Secretary Xi, on a scale not seen in China since Deng Xiaoping. Internal dissent, both within the Party and beyond, has effectively been ‘disciplined’ through an anti-graft campaign and a general strengthening of censorship and surveillance. Xi’s philosophy of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ has been incorporated as the guiding ideology of the Party, while Xi himself, ‘Chairman of Everything’, has centralized control over economic policy-making and the military, and has elevated himself to historical heights of political power, which rests on a solid and cohesive elite power base and wide legitimacy. This concentration of power was further enhanced by the recent announcement that the two-term limit for Xi’s presidency is to be scrapped.

A hybrid scenario

What does this mean for US–China relations and future of the liberal international order? As we argue in our International Affairs article, in contrast to many alarmist accounts, we do not see a major US–China conflict in the making, let alone an outright war. The interdependencies and mutual interests in terms of investments and trade on both sides are too large to make a major conflict scenario likely, bar any fatal accidents. But neither can we expect China to become entirely co-opted into the liberal order, contrary to what many US policy makers and liberal scholars have assumed until recently. The Chinese economy is increasingly integrated into the world economy, and as a result its leaders are embracing ‘inclusive’ globalization and advocating an open door to trade and investment. However, as we show in our article, China’s economy remains wedded to a ‘state-directed’ form of capitalism, which involves a partial adaptation to the liberal rules of the game, but also selective and decisive resistance against it. We therefore envisage a third, more hybrid scenario of co-existence, which will entail both competition and cooperation.

This hybrid scenario, however, does not imply the absence of contestation and, crucially, hinges on the resolution of domestic political and social contestation within both the US and China. The key question here is whether and how the American and Chinese elites are able to manage their societal contradictions, domestically and internationally. This will require, among other things, major structural solutions and a (re)distribution of social, societal and natural resources in order to lower inequality, improve employment opportunities, solve the immigration conundrum and to ecologically save the planet. China is facing many domestic challenges, from spiralling national debt to the middle income trap, nevertheless it seems to be in a better position to address these crises than the US under Trump.

Nana de Graaff is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.

Bastiaan van Apeldoorn is Reader in International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.

Their co-authored article, ‘US–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions’, appeared in the January 2018 special issue of International Affairs, ‘Ordering the world: liberal internationalism in theory and practice’.

Read the article here.

Explore the rest of the special issue here.



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