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Will China be the voice of stability in Davos in 2017?

Mr Xi Jinping is heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps his trip tells us only that the Chinese President has succumbed to the vanity that compels global elites to parade their wisdom over champagne and canapes in a small Swiss ski resort.

And yet Mr Xi's top billing at next month's gathering also says something about the world. President-elect Donald Trump wants the US to shrug off its global responsibilities. China may grab the opening to move centre stage.

The populism that has unnerved the West during 2016 is no match for the revolutionary tumult that gripped Europe in 1848. Though it ended in bitter disappointment for the revolutionaries, that year's "spring of nations" struck at the foundations of the ancien regime. Today's insurgents have grabbed power through the ballot box.

That said, a post-Cold War generation lulled into believing that order and predictability are part of the state of nature has been badly shaken. Power is no longer where we thought it was. Even before the dust settles on the spreading populism that gave Mr Trump his victory and Britain, well, Brexit, we can see a different landscape taking shape.

Mr Trump still has everyone guessing. Each tilt towards a more temperate stance on domestic or world affairs is matched by angry late-night tweets. No one ever accused him of campaigning in poetry. Now, it seems even less likely that he will govern in prose.

Amid the swerves and the Twitter fusillades there are one or two constants. Billionaires will pay less tax and foreign policy will be unashamedly nationalist. Mr Trump belongs to a club of Americans that sees global rules and fixed alliances as a subtraction from, rather than an addition to, US power. Multilateralism is for wimps. Geopolitics is like business. Mr Trump wants to make deals.

He is right to think the United States can more than stand its ground in a world in which might replaces rules as the currency of global relations. The US is still the sole superpower - the reference point for everyone else's foreign policy. But discarding allies and making deals with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to advance US strategic interests. Here lies Mr Xi's opportunity in Davos.

China's distrust of the post-Cold War order long predates Mr Trump. But it is a US president who is now bringing down the curtain on the Pax Americana. Set against Mr Trump's embrace of "America First" trade and security policies, Beijing's call for a "new model of international relations" no longer looks like an attempt to overturn the Western liberal order.

To the contrary, China can cast itself as a guardian of global governance and the torchbearer for the open trading system. Mr Xi champions the Paris climate change accord, defends the global community's nuclear deal with Iran and expands trade liberalisation in Asia and, hey presto, the bad guy is suddenly the good guy. As for China's military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, it is Mr Trump who now threatens to upend a decades-long Sino-US understanding that has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait.

The new geopolitical landscape will not be drawn in straight lines. There is a tidiness about multilateralism that disappears when shared rules are replaced by the interplay of competing powers. Perhaps Mr Trump imagines a great power condominium of the US, China and Russia. The snag is their interests collide more often than coincide. Striking a bargain with Mr Putin about Syria would see the US handing a victory to Iran. Abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal will encourage the US' regional allies to integrate economically with China.

The new order will be replete with jagged edges, regional pacts and overlapping, sometimes contradictory, alliances.

The lazy thing to say is that Europe will still be consumed in 2017 by domestic troubles. Growth is not fast enough to quell the anger of those left behind by globalisation; migration supplies ammunition to the populists; Brexit will suck up political energy. The leader of France's xenophobic National Front Marine Le Pen hopes to harness the momentum of Mr Trump and the Brexiters in her bid for the Elysee Palace.

Were Ms Le Pen to win the presidency, the game might well be up. There is another plausible if not yet probable scenario that sees the start of a European revival in which economic recovery picks up speed and migration stabilises. Most importantly, a victory for the Republican candidate Francois Fillon in France and a fourth term for Germany's Angela Merkel restores the Franco-German motor of European cooperation.

Either way, there is no room for neatness in the world's new design. There is, though, an opportunity for China. Classical geopolitical theory has it that, in a collision between established and rising powers, the upstart is the destabilising force.

When the elites of Davos gather for their annual fest of self-congratulatory backslapping, it would be something of an irony were Mr Xi to appear as the voice for stability.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Will China be the voice of stability in Davos in 2017?'. Print Edition | Subscribe