Opinion

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

As Trump retreats from the world, China is ready to step in

President Trump s and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
MANDEL NGAN,NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump s and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While the president and his Twitter trigger finger whip America into a frenzy over whichever shiny object he chooses to capture our attention — who called more fallen troops’ families, if football players should stand for the national anthem, an unproven story about uranium and Hillary Clinton (who already lost), a charge the FBI paid for an unproven dossier about Russia and Donald Trump (who already won) — China’s leaders are giving thanks for Trump, the gift that hasn’t stopped giving Beijing exactly what it wants.

This week marks the every-five-years Communist Party Congress, the gathering at which President Xi Jinping is being endorsed for a second term, consolidating his role as “chairman of everything” — arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong — and enshrining Xi Jinping “thought” in China’s constitution. China knows by now that Trump is perennially distracted by a circus of his own making and disarmed by polite nodding over a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump declared before taking office that China was a currency manipulator, a trade-imbalance exploiter, a bully toward democratic Taiwan, and perhaps the biggest threat to America. He had China’s number and would make better deals, he said, ensuring that China doesn’t eclipse US power.

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Since they had cake, we’ve heard nary a peep of that, as Trump has focused on China twisting the nuclear-armed arm of North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man.” Trump decertified the UN-backed nuclear deal that US pressure helped forge to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; declared our withdrawal from the global climate accord that the Obama administration prevailed upon China to join; and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Washington spent years coaxing Asian nations, including Chinese partners such as Vietnam, to join, under US-led rules of the road on free trade.

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One prevalent view reflected in Chinese media is that the bombastic businessman who fancies himself the master of the deal has instead given China free run of the house. A commentary in the state-run Xinhua news agency said Western leaders are swamped by “crises and chaos” as “capitalist democracy becomes more oligarchic in nature. The cracks are beginning to show, with many eccentric or unexpected results in recent plebiscites” — a not-at-all coded reference to the victories of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump in the United States.

In a three-and-a-half hour speech kicking off the People’s Congress, Xi encouraged foreign countries to follow Beijing’s example instead, predicting China will be a leading global superpower by 2050, fulfilling the “Chinese Dream.”

“No one has been more surprised by the US retreat from its leadership positions” than China, observed Graham Allison, a Harvard Kennedy School professor. “But if Trump insists on leaving the perch, Xi is ready to rise to the opportunity.”

Trump is due to visit China on Nov. 8, where he will face an ever-more confident Communist Party leadership invigorated by Xi’s consolidation.

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Some there may “gloat” about China’s opportunity to wrest the leadership mantle from Washington, said Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former White House Asia adviser to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Others are “concerned too much will be expected of China, which does not have the capacity” to fill America’s shoes on the world stage. In the United States and Europe, diplomats are “worried about the failure of the Trump administration to lead and protect the liberal international order that has largely maintained prosperity and peace.”

A cynical view is that Trump will be flattered and duped by Chinese pageantry, banquets, and dancing groups, lulled into complacency by vague never-filled reassurances on trade and North Korea. But Chinese leaders are also worried about Trump’s unpredictability and the risks his actions may pose to the global economy and peace.

Trump’s “decisions are seen as rash” with potentially “negative consequences” for China and the rest of the world, said Paul Haenle, former senior adviser to George W. Bush and Barack Obama and director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

It turns out China is watching Trump’s Twitter finger as keenly as we are.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.