Why China will be able to sell itself as the last liberal great power

A Chinese national flag fluttering outside the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, China, on April 3, 2014.
A Chinese national flag fluttering outside the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, China, on April 3, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

Hey, the new Office of the United States Trade Representative website is up! Let's take a look to see what it says about opening up trade opportunities for American firms and consumers: "(The) new America First trade policy will make it more desirable for companies to stay here, create jobs here, pay taxes here and rebuild our economy. Our workers and the communities that support them will thrive again as companies compete to set up manufacturing in the US to hire our young people and give them hope and a real shot at prosperity again."

So that sounds... interesting, but almost entirely unrelated to what trade representatives traditionally do. I guess US President Donald Trump's trade office will be dedicated to reducing trade with the rest of the world.

Which is entirely consistent with what Mr Trump said in his inaugural address that he wants to do: "We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."

Mr Trump has backed his words with actions, signing an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It is hard not to notice the contrast between the Trump administration's rhetoric on globalisation and China's recent rhetoric on the same subject.

The Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Chin notes that China is making rhetorical moves to assume the mantle of global economic leadership: "China is prepared to take the helm of the global economy if Western nations abdicate their leadership role, a top Chinese diplomat said Monday, days after US President Donald Trump pledged in his inaugural address to put 'America first'.

"'If it's necessary for China to play the role of leader, then China must take on this responsibility,' Mr Zhang Jun, head of the Chinese foreign ministry's office of international economic affairs, told foreign reporters in Beijing.

"'If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it's not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It's because the original front runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front,' he said."

I wrote in October that the Chinese would seem like the last great liberals in the world. And now it appears to have come to pass.

There is no doubt that on a lot of dimensions, China has acted like a responsible stakeholder in the liberal international order. But there are problems with this narrative.

As the Associated Press pointed out, China is pretty far away from being a free trader: "While Chinese leader Xi Jinping's Davos speech may have seemed a refreshing contrast to Mr Trump's parochialism, in reality, China is 'aggressively pursuing mercantilist and protectionist policies', said Associate Professor Victor Shih of the University of California at San Diego. In his remarks, Mr Xi said it is 'simply impossible' to stop the international flow of goods and services, but China is currently engaged in 'the most sophisticated and extensive exercise in capital control in the world', he added."

China does not come close to embodying the liberal hegemon that many want to bestow on Beijing. Here's the troubling thing, though: I'm not sure that Chinese hypocrisy on these issues will matter all that much.

In a 2013 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, George Washington University Associate Professor Henry Farrell and Professor Martha Finnemore wrote about the "hypocritical power" of the US, referring to the nation's ability to articulate a liberal vision for global order while semi-regularly violating those liberal principles in its actions: "Most of the world today lives within an order that the US built, one that is underwritten by US power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and later the World Trade Organisation. Despite recent challenges to US pre-eminence, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

"This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, US officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone."

Prof Farrell and Prof Finnemore were worried that actors such as WikiLeaks would expose American hypocrisy to the point where other countries would cease to buy into the liberal order. It turns out the bigger problem would be that the US under the Trump administration would voluntarily abandon that order.

An actor possesses hypocritical power if they can articulate a vision that attracts other actors, even if they do not practise what they preach. In the wake of an American retreat from the global economy, advocates of globalisation will look for a new standard-bearer. And that actor will inherit a windfall of hypocritical power.

It is possible that China lacks the material capabilities to substitute for American economic power. But it is likely that many countries will not care about only that. A large fraction of the world still believes in the liberal order that the US helped to erect 70 years ago, even if the current US administration does not. They will look to any country willing to publicly defend that power.

The bipartisan approach to China for the past 30 years has been to do everything possible to get Beijing to want to preserve the global rules of the game, as designed by the US.

China has not always complied in practice, but it has mostly done so in its rhetoric. The final outcome of this approach is a cruel irony: As America turns inwards, the rest of the world turns to China. WASHINGTON POST

•The writer is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Why China will be able to sell itself as the last liberal great power'. Print Edition | Subscribe