With no heir apparent and his power firmly consolidated, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be at the height of his authority when U.S. President Donald Trump makes his first state visit next week. In a speech inaugurating his second five-year term on October 18, Xi’s message was clear: China is already a superpower and should begin to act like one. This should be a wake-up call for the United States. North Korea has so far monopolized the Trump administration’s attention in Asia, and it is certainly an urgent security issue that needs to be resolved. But Trump will have to widen his focus to counter China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and address challenges to U.S. leadership in the region.
Xi’s New Era
Xi characterizes China as facing a historic juncture. Under Mao Zedong’s revolutionary leadership, the Chinese people stood up. Under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese people became rich. And now, under Xi, the nation is becoming strong. That Xi sees himself and this moment on par with such pivotal figures and shifts in modern Chinese history is striking.
While the 19th Party Congress did not indicate explicit changes in Chinese foreign policy, Xi all but confirmed that Deng Xiaoping’s long-standing dictum—China should keep a low profile on the international stage—has been retired. He laid out ambitious benchmarks for China to return to its rightful place at the center of global affairs after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperial powers. Xi warned that “no country alone can handle all the challenges that mankind faces and no country can retreat into self-isolation”—a veiled critique of Trump’s America First foreign policy. He also attempted to portray China as a responsible major power by highlighting that China would take the lead in international cooperative efforts to address climate change and “ensure the survival of mankind.”
Xi is putting Chinese power into practice. He seeks a more active role for China in shaping regional and global norms to better suit its own interests. During the congress, Xi suggested that China’s version of socialism provides an alternative model to Western democracy for countries “who want to accelerate their development while maintaining their independence.” The sentiment reflects China’s goal to amplify the voices and influence of emerging nations in global governance at the expense of developed nations. U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), failure to recertify the Iran nuclear deal, and commencement of the withdrawal process from the Paris climate accord are all symptoms of disengagement that place the future of U.S. leadership in doubt. At a time when U.S. leadership in the region is receding, China sees increasing opportunities to advance its own regional security and economic architectures, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and a “community of common destiny.”
Still, the Chinese leadership recognizes that it faces tremendous challenges at home. China’s rapid development and modernization has presented new problems, including rising income inequality, debt, and environmental pollution. At the congress, the Chinese Communist Party noted that the central contradiction facing society is now between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” The party chose not to set a target of doubling its GDP from 2021, making it clear that economic growth is no longer its singular aim; rather, to become a “strong” country, China must consider a more comprehensive set of indicators, including the quality of economic growth, the delivery of social services, and the strength of the military.
A U.S. Position of Strength
Against this backdrop, the Trump administration needs to articulate a strategy that will maintain U.S. leadership in the Asia Pacific as China seeks to reassert its role. Such a strategy must involve strengthening the United States’ domestic foundations, investing in U.S. allies and partners, and upholding the rules-based order that has benefited the region. It will require Trump to recalibrate the United States’ China policy in order to lay the foundation for a more sustainable U.S.-China relationship.
Strong Domestic Foundations
U.S. national security, global credibility, and leadership rest on the foundations of the country’s fiscal and economic health, institutional strength, highly capable defense, and effective political system. To be competitive globally, the United States must address the inequities and imbalances in its own system and recognize that it cannot champion democracy and human rights abroad if they are not defended at home. U.S. values and principles have long been an important part of bolstering U.S. power and goodwill, and they provide the best response to China’s suggestion of an alternative model.
Robust Alliances and Partners
Washington’s alliances strengthen its position vis-à-vis Beijing. Trump should underscore the value of these alliances when he visits Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea and confirm that U.S. commitments to their security are ironclad. He should also stress that the United States will never trade its support for Taiwan for China’s concessions in other areas and will strengthen its economic ties and security cooperation with partners in the region as a counterbalance to China’s growing clout.
The United States must continue to take the lead in upholding a rules-based order that is critical to the region’s security and prosperity. It should continue to unite the region against North Korean violations of international law and press China to do more to bring the Kim Jong-un regime back to the table for negotiations on denuclearization (for example, by shutting off oil supplies and expelling laborers). It should also support regional institutions, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that provide a mechanism for the peaceful resolution of disputes and serve as a counterweight to China. Finally, Trump should express support for the 2016 arbitral tribunal rulings in the South China Sea and be firm that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, including conducting regular freedom of navigation operations.
Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP left a vacuum of economic leadership in the region, and China is seeking to fill it. As a priority, the United States needs to retake the lead in opening markets and setting high standards. Trump should avoid protectionist solutions that would lead to tit-for-tat retaliation or beggar-thy-neighbor policies. The free trade system that the United States helped build has contributed to widespread prosperity and mitigated competition over resources and markets. Undermining this system would ultimately damage the U.S. economy and national security and strain its alliances.
Recalibration of China Policy
U.S. efforts to rebalance its economic relationship with China and establish a level playing field for U.S. and Chinese companies have produced underwhelming results. Likewise, Chinese cooperation to address North Korean aggression, while improving, remains unsatisfactory. Xi will try to cast Trump’s state visit to China in a positive light, but it is time for the United States to push back more forcefully on areas where China is challenging U.S. interests. Trump should avoid his penchant for flashy deals when negotiating economic issues with China and demand improvements to the structural economic imbalances and barriers that inhibit U.S. economic growth. He should push for reciprocal treatment for U.S. businesses, demand greater market access for U.S. companies, and redouble efforts to prevent Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property and technology. In addition, Trump is right to expect China to go beyond recent United Nations Security Council resolutions in punishing its recalcitrant neighbor, North Korea. Given Xi’s elevation and that U.S.-China relations have become increasingly centered on the two leaders, Trump should leverage his growing relationship with Xi to achieve breakthroughs in these priority areas.
Xi’s new era presents significant opportunities and challenges for Washington. It is therefore vital that Trump maintain a U.S. position of strength. The United States is still wealthier and more powerful and resilient than any of its competitors. To remain the more attractive model in the face of a Chinese alternative, the United States needs to strengthen its domestic foundations and continue to invest in the alliances, partnerships, and systems of rules and norms that have allowed it and countries across Asia to thrive.