Demolishing and building
As Donald Trump goes to great lengths to demolish the post-war world order, Xi Jinping is endeavouring to build the world order of tomorrow.
The central role played by the United States in founding and running international institutions ensured that the country had a decisive political and economic influence in the post-war world. As the Soviet empire collapsed, the US model, based on democracy and liberal capitalism, won out over other political ideologies. The United States thus went from being a post-war superpower to being a hyperpower what became a unipolar world. The United States is not only a military power: the universalisation of liberal democracy, globalisation and free trade, the supremacy of the dollar, and the Americanisation of lifestyles and cultures all point to the multidimensional nature of US domination.
This US-centric world, built to serve US interests, is disintegrating before our eyes, by the desire of the very power that built it. President Trump, the destroyer of multilateralism, is systematically dismantling the instruments of American power. With his “America First” slogan, Trump is advocating an inward-looking nationalism to his domestic audience, and brandishing the threat of protectionism in the face of a world Trade deemed out of control and unfair. Outwardly, the Trump administration is systematically turning its back on international cooperation (pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, denouncing the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawing from UNESCO, etc.) and withdrawing into an isolationist bubble.
The end of unrivalled US leadership coincides with the rise of a rival power in the making: China.
In less than half a century, China, converted to a “socialist” market economy, has become the world’s number two economic power. The economic opening-up that lay behind the Chinese miracle has not been accompanied by a democratisation of the political regime, which continues to be monopolised by the Communist Party of China (CPC). At the 19th CPC Congress, China, through the voice of its all-powerful General Secretary Xi Jinping, made no secret of its ambition to become a modern, innovative and prosperous top-tier power able to rival or even supplant the United States by 2049, the centenary year of the People’s Republic of China.
Outwardly, the 2013 launch of the new “Silk Road” (One Belt One Road, or OBOR) by Xi Jinping also demonstrates China’s desire to wield influence beyond its borders by proposing a new model for international relationships and global governance based on win/win cooperation. This titanic project aimed at interconnecting the Eurasian continent via six economic land corridors and a sea route requires billions of dollars of investment in transport and logistics infrastructure and telecommunications networks. The goal is to realise synergies between the development strategies of China, now the apostle of free trade, and numerous other countries by stimulating investment and trade. The challenge for China is economic, with the desire to continue globalising Chinese businesses, find new markets, export surplus industrial capacity, help upscale the country’s industry and open up inland provinces to trade to reduce socio-spatial inequalities. Furthermore, this rebalancing between China’s provinces remains essential to the country’s internal security and stability. China also faces a geostrategic challenge with the need to secure energy and commodity supplies, notably in central Asia, and to diversify transit routes to avoid the Strait of Malacca and the risk of a blockade. Finally, this “infrastructure diplomacy”, which cultivates the image of a gentle, benevolent power, is a way to affirm China’s soft power. Through this strategy of seduction, China clearly intends to influence international ground rules and standards, and – why not? – to redraw a more China-centric world order that serves China’s national interests.
It is hard to tell just how far China will go in its pursuit of power acquired through economic rather than military might. However, it is difficult not to see China, backed by its economic firepower, adopting a more aggressive strategy to dominate the international system and remake it in its own image, with an ideological clash between two worlds revolving around the question of democracy and individual freedoms.
Isabelle Job, Group Chief Economist at Credit Agricole