China set to fill leadership vacuum as US turns inwards: China Daily Columnist

A Chinese flag is seen near a construction site in Beijing's central business area, China, on Jan 17, 2017.
A Chinese flag is seen near a construction site in Beijing's central business area, China, on Jan 17, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

It is both interesting and intriguing to see China and the United States switching sides at this stage in the game.

As the US attempts to overhaul the global regulatory mechanism it has pioneered for decades, China is emerging as a staunch defender of globalisation and a new standard-bearer for free trade.

On Jan 23, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to pull the US out of the almost-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The creation of the 12-nation trade bloc had been championed by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and was touted as the best and largest multilateral trade agreement ever.

Economic considerations aside, the TPP was obviously designed to curtail China's rise, as an indispensable part of the US' high-profile "pivot to Asia" strategy.

Trump is also set to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a nutshell, he wants a complete revamp of the global order.

It may be unwise to think Trump is bluffing in order to strike better deals with both allies and enemies, as he appears to genuinely believe that globalisation is sucking the lifeblood out of America's economy.

This explains why he pledges to put "America first" as his principle, and urges to "buy American".

It is no exaggeration to say that most of the world, particularly the West, watched in horror at the unravelling of globalisation in 2016. First was Britain's decision in June to exit the European Union, then came Trump's triumph in November - as a result of the most controversial general election in US history.

The phenomenon points to populism rising around the globe while neo-liberalism and globalisation decline. This is the grim uncertainty the world faces in the wake of an evolving geopolitical ecosystem and landscape.

Perhaps the time is ripe to raise a few questions, such as: Why is globalisation decaying, or even heading toward a dead end? Can democracy ensure a country's competitiveness? And do any practical solutions exist to avoid a trade war among global powers?

It remains to be seen how an inward-looking US president can "make America great again" in a closed environment.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan 17: "Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, so are light and air."

From a Chinese perspective, how China should view and respond to this new phase of globalisation, especially in regard to the Sino-US relationship under the Trump administration, is a big issue that cannot be taken lightly.

So is China now in a position to take the lead on further globalisation? To answer this, let's take a look at the direction the Middle Kingdom is heading.

He Yafei, a former vice-foreign minister, has reflected on China's place in global governance. He said in an interview that 2003 was the year China was first consulted on global economic issues with the G7 and G8.

The invitation was significant for China. This later evolved into a semi-permanent 8+5 mechanism, which provided a vital platform of consultation between advanced and emerging economies.

This pattern lasted until 2007 when the power and global influence between developed and developing countries became unbalanced. The combined GDP of the G7 nations declined to around 30 per cent of the world's total, compared to more than 60 per cent in the 1970s.

Last year, when Xi successfully hosted the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, in the eastern Zhejiang province, it was seen as a significant step for China's influence in global economic governance.

Globalisation is the process of international integration arising from the exchange of trade, ideas, views and other aspects of culture.

Globalisation thrived in the 1980s, but its history can be traced back long before the European Age of Discovery and voyages to the New World, and even the ancient Silk Road.

Author and New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman popularised the term "flat world" to define globalisation, arguing that free trade and political forces have permanently changed the world, for better and worse.

In this regard, China's clout is destined to go beyond the economic sphere to have further social, cultural and geopolitical influence.

The connectivity and interdependence of the world's economies and cultures are growing at an unprecedented pace, due to the Internet and mobile devices. In the process, China is getting ready to play an even bigger role, especially as the US abdicates its leadership and turns inward.

Therefore, China's newfound mission as the leader of globalisation is becoming a reality.

The nation looks set to eventually fill the leadership vacuum by pushing for a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region.

The US' withdrawal from the TPP may prompt the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to take shape. The RCEP is initiated by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and will also involve China, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

In the meantime, with a price tag of $3 trillion (S$4.3 trillion), the China-led Belt and Road Initiative is slowly expanding its trade and infrastructure plans along the centuries-old Silk Road.

Over the years, China has become a key player in the G20 and global governance. The Beijing consensus, China model, socialism with Chinese characteristics, or whatever you want to call it, is gaining more attention and due respect from the international community.

It may be premature to say the 21st century belongs to China, but it can be said that it is enjoying its finest moment of development in centuries.