Trump opens a door for China, but challenges lurk behind

BEIJING • By now, it is widely regarded that the impending Donald Trump presidency - which could see the United States turn insular and reduce its international responsibilities - will open the door for China to play a bigger global role in areas such as free trade and climate change.

President-elect Trump's anti-immigration stance is also believed to provide an opportunity for China to deepen its influence in Latin America, which is deemed the Americans' backyard and the source of many migrants to the US.

Recent remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese officials reflect an attempt to claim a bigger leadership role, by touting the initiatives that China backs and promises that it intends to keep.

For instance, Mr Xi vowed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Peru last weekend that China "will not shut its door to the outside world, but open it even wider" - a message welcomed globally compared to Mr Trump's pledge on Wednesday to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks on Day One of his presidency in January.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Morocco last week, Chinese negotiators pledged to stay committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change, despite talk that Mr Trump would withdraw from the landmark deal inked late last year, and ratified by Beijing and Washington this year.

Local magazine Global People (centre), with a cover story "Why did Trump win?", at a news-stand in Shanghai. Mr Trump's victory on Nov 8 and his insular stance could pave the way for China to take on a bigger role globally but it needs to match the United States' strength and experience first in an international arena. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

But even as it seizes the opportunity from a Trump presidency, China has also tried to temper expectations that it is keen or prepared to take on a global leadership role.

For instance, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin urged the next US administration to back the Paris Agreement to avoid a repeat of the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, which failed due to US withdrawal in 2001 and a lack of support from other developed nations.

"We hope that the US will continue to play a leadership role in the climate change process as people are worried about a repeat of the experience of the Kyoto Protocol," he told reporters on the sidelines of the UN climate conference.

Mr Xi's grand vision of a rejuvenated Chinese nation regaining its rightfully central place in the world also compels him to seize the opportunity to boost China's influence. An insular America may give China a chance to reshape global institutions to serve its interests.

On trade, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has repeatedly stressed that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is driven by Asean, not China, which is one of the bloc's six dialogue partners involved in the proposed free trade arrangement that excludes the US.

Even the Global Times tabloid, known for its nationalistic streak, recognised that China, being unable to match the US in terms of comprehensive strength, has no ability to lead the world in an overall way. Plus, neither the world nor China is psychologically ready for it.

"It's beyond imagination to think that China could replace the US to lead the world," it said in an editorial on Monday.

So why does China seem to be staking a claim to a bigger global leadership role, and yet denying it and talking down its ability to do so?

First, it likely reflects a recognition among Chinese policymakers that what the Trump victory has done is simply cast the global spotlight on China. The world could be just looking for the next best thing available, which doesn't necessarily mean concrete support for China's initiatives or acceptance of its leadership.

After all, China is essentially making the same promises it has made in recent years. It also has not rolled out new major initiatives on trade and climate change since Mr Trump's election win on Nov 8.

Mr Xi's visits to three Latin states - Peru, Ecuador and Chile - were also planned before the polls. If Democratic candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had won, Mr Xi's trip would not be seen as an attempt to seize the chance to deepen ties with Latin America.

The good vibes for China and its preferred initiatives may also vanish if the circumstances change - like if Mr Trump changes his mind on the TPP withdrawal - or if the China-led proposals do not meet the requirements of other states.

Second, China may harbour hopes of being the world's sole superpower some day, but it knows it is unable yet to replace the US in crucial areas, let alone globally. For now, China's actions reflect an attempt to take on a bigger leadership role in Asia or on issues where it may hurt from a US cutback.

For instance, China cannot make up for the shortfall in emission cuts if Washington withdraws from the Paris deal.

A trade-protectionist US will also rock the global economy and, in turn, the Chinese economy.

Even in security, some Chinese analysts believe China may be hurt if Mr Trump were to cut back on US obligations in this area.

Influential Chinese international relations expert Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Monday that Mr Trump may take a less proactive stance on the North Korean nuclear issue, which will in turn make it a trickier problem for China.

He also said conflict may intensify in various regions of the world as no single country will be able to take over the US role as global cop.

In view of the challenges in filling the vacuum, it is no wonder China is trying to moderate expectations, even as it tries to milk the situation.

But yet, there are some factors why China must act.

Mr Xi's grand vision of a rejuvenated Chinese nation regaining its rightfully central place in the world also compels him to seize the opportunity to boost China's influence.

An insular America may give China a chance to reshape global institutions to serve its interests.

An increasingly vocal and critical population means strong domestic pressure to tackle climate change and related environmental issues.

China, which has benefited from globalisation, still relies strongly on open free trade for its exporting industries while it also needs to seek out new markets for its companies.

So what China could be doing is to use the moment of fear and panic over Mr Trump to burnish its international image and gain support for initiatives that it believes it can control and design to its advantage.

But to reap real benefits and put itself in a better position to claim a global leadership role later, China will need to do more than posturing.

On trade, it has to ensure that the RCEP aspires to standards comparable to those of the TPP, which excludes China and is often described as the new 21st-century free trade agreement.

China also has to ensure it is providing a fair operating environment for foreign businesses, and subscribing to international standards on copyright protection and labour rights, among others.

On climate change, China, now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, will have to ensure that the quality of its emission and energy use data meet international standards.

It also needs to persist with its pledges of peaking emissions by 2030 despite domestic resistance in implementing reforms involving shutting heavy-polluting industries like coal.

On dealing with Latin states, China will need to draw from its decades of experiences on the African continent that came under global criticism for overexploitation of resources with little regard for the environment or labour rights.

China will have to recognise that Latin states are more democratised than African nations, which means its past practices, such as importing Chinese labour, will have to give way to efforts to hire locally.

A door of opportunity has opened for China to play a bigger global role, and it has taken a step in.

But it will need to act sensibly for the door may close or, worse, slam shut with its foot in the way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'Trump opens a door for China, but challenges lurk behind'. Print Edition | Subscribe