The Country with the Most to Gain from Trump is not Russia; It’s China
April 6, 2017China—not Russia—has the greatest potential to gain international influence over the long run. China’s goal to become the global superpower runs straight through its overseas development and climate change efforts; exactly where President Donald Trump’s budget blueprint will decrease U.S. influence the most.
Russia dominates our headlines in ways not seen since the Cold War. There are reported ties to the Trump campaign, Kremlin-sanctioned interference in the 2016 elections, silence over Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on anticorruption protesters, and regular trafficking in dangerous false equivalency “whataboutisms.” With all this focus, one could plausibly assume that Russia has the most to gain from the Trump presidency.
That would, however, be a mistake. China is both better positioned and has much more to gain.
U.S. withdrawal from its obligations to the liberal international order—which would be the effect of President Trump’s budget blueprint if passed by Congress—creates unprecedented space for Chinese opportunism. China is poised to replace the United States as global trade leader, and President Trump’s renunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has given it an opportunity to strengthen regional trade opportunities that were once available to the United States. It is no secret that China desires even more global influence, a pursuit that, to a certain extent, has been checked by U.S. global leadership. Until now.
Candidate Trump antagonized China during the campaign and has made a habit of eschewing the delicate geopolitical order since his election. Despite some not-so-subtle military hints and the requisite strong words of rebuke from state-run media outlets, China is figuring out how to influence an unpredictable new administration. They have already realized that Jared Kushner is, among myriad other things, the gatekeeper to Mar-a-Lago and the Trump agenda. Chinese diplomats, business people, and party officials (not to mention spies ), are on the lookout for ways to capitalize on the Trump administration’s inexperience and President Trump’s own oversimplified, “us vs. them,” transactional world view.
But China’s long-run triumph will come in terms of its potential to influence global agendas, particularly on climate change and economic development.
In what must be one of the most stunning role reversals in history, China is poised to be a global leader on climate change. Even though the United States is technically still a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement, it will struggle to meet carbon emissions targets after President Trump dismantles much of the regulatory framework put in place by the Obama administration and guts the Environmental Protection Agency .
This ongoing shift in geopolitical leadership on climate change is confounded by the fact that seemingly no one in the White House, and few Republicans on Capitol Hill, want to acknowledge broadly accepted climate science. China now has all the space it needs to assume global leadership on climate change.
A similar narrative persists when the discussion shifts to international development and the two countries’ roles within the international liberal order.
Heretofore the United States has been the major player on international aid and development. Though its percentage of gross national income spent on aid is lower than other high-income countries, the United States spends almost double the next highest country in real dollar terms. With great funding comes great power and influence. The United States maintains an unwritten “right” to the World Bank presidency. Its permanent seat on the UN Security Council is complemented by several senior postings—such as head of the World Food Programme and UNICEF —unofficially reserved for U.S. nationals. Significant funding to, and participation in, these organizations has allowed for successive U.S. administrations of both parties to garner increased global influence.
In its “Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” the Trump administration opens the door for U.S. global leadership to be a thing of the past. And it provides unprecedented opportunity for China to fill gaps left by the proposed 28 percent reduction in funding to international engagement. Of particular interest to China must be the directive to State Department staffers to “seek cuts in excess of 50 percent…for UN programs”; Beijing is also likely eyeing Washington’s purported $650 million funding cuts to the World Bank with keen interest.
China assigns significant value to the global legitimacy and power that comes with heading any one of these organizations. And China has the ability—and probably the willingness—to pay for that privilege if the United States does not maintain its obligations.
As a result of population and economic growth in the last 50 years, China has looked abroad for natural resources, business opportunity, and influence. Despite some dismissal of China’s approach as “post-responsible,” its impact is undeniable. In pursuit of national resources, geopolitical legitimacy, markets for Chinese products, and the stability necessary to pursue all three of these goals, China is creating powerful allies based on mutual benefit.
For example, African governments “generally portray Chinese engagement as positive,” and Africans themselves hold “generally positive views of China.” Though not its only region of interest, Chinese efforts to develop soft power on the African continent have increased recently. Now the world’s second-largest economy, China signed a staggering $90-plus billion in African infrastructure contracts in 2014 (for context, the United States spent $35 billion on aid globally in that same year). From the 1970s TAZARA Railway connecting Zambia with Tanzania to the recently completed light rapid transit (i.e., metro) system in Addis Ababa, China has been “out-flexing” the United States in terms of African influence for quite some time now.
The next step in Beijing’s pursuit of global leadership is access to leadership positions in the organizations—like the United Nations and the World Bank—that make up the liberal international order. Thanks to President Trump, China just might get there.
Erol Yayboke is a research fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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