BEIJING (Reuters) – As Donald Trump has pulled the United States inward under his “America First” presidency, China has had only halting success at capitalising on a global leadership vacuum, presenting openings for a more internationalist Joe Biden administration if he wins next month’s election.
FILE PHOTO: People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping speaks during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly, in New York City, New York, U.S., September 22, 2020. United Nations/Handout via REUTERS
Under Trump, Washington abandoned the Paris climate pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO, and ditched the Iran nuclear deal. It has announced that it will withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO) next July and has crippled the World Trade Organization by blocking appointments to its appeals panel.
Beijing, which accuses Washington of being “addicted to quitting”, has struck a more globalist posture under President Xi Jinping: Chinese officials head four of the 15 UN agencies, and Beijing has boosted its WHO commitment by $2 billion.
As it has sought a seat at the table more befitting its status as the world’s number-two economy, China has also formed its own multilateral institutions, including the Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
“China has been trying its best to take advantage of the U.S. retreat to advance its own goals,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Nevertheless, China has had difficulty translating its growing influence into foreign policy success,” he said.
While China has all-but-quashed the spread of coronavirus and is a leader in vaccine efforts, its early mishandling of the outbreak that began in Wuhan has triggered a global backlash.
Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, its mass detention of Uighur Muslims, its island-building in the South China Sea and sabre-rattling towards Taiwan as well as more aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, have also eroded sentiment towards China – even as Trump’s policies have undermined U.S. standing.
China has struggled to leverage the exasperation of some U.S. allies towards Washington under Trump, with State Councillor Wang Yi, the government’s top diplomat, facing pushback over Hong Kong and other issues during a recent five-country visit to Europe.
“Many see the U.S. retreat from global institutions under Trump as ceding fertile ground to China in this area, but what is striking is how much China’s so-called ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy has undercut their ability to take advantage,” said Susan Thornton, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia early in the Trump administration.
In April, an internal Chinese report warned that Beijing faced a rising wave of hostility in the aftermath of the coronavirus, with global anti-China sentiment at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Reuters reported in May, citing people familiar with the matter.
If Biden wins, he is expected to maintain a tough stance on China but also to engage with allies and international bodies in a more traditional way. He has said he would keep the United States in the WHO and rejoin the Paris climate accord.
“On many issues of global governance, there is still much room for cooperation between the two countries,” such as climate and COVID-19, said Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University School of International Studies who has advised China’s government.
Despite its growing economic and military might, China has been a sometimes-awkward multilateral leader, insisting that it is still a developing country and does not want to replace the United States.
Its diplomatic ties tend to be transactional, with a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and a demand that it gets the same treatment, blasting what it calls Washington’s “long-arm jurisdiction.”