The New Year has brought a rash of new articles and proclamations to the effect that the retreat of the United States has left the door open for China to walk through and assume the mantle of global leadership.
Let me offer an alternative argument: We suck, but China does too. The truth is that neither the United States nor China is currently up to the job of forging the type of consensus that addresses global challenges and advances the international system writ large. The only difference is that the United States now has a leader who makes clear that he simply doesn’t care about the rest of the world while China has a leader that at least pretends to care.
So what is the case for Chinese leadership? China’s claim is strongest on the purely economic front. It is investing heavily in all forms of technology from clean energy to artificial intelligence, and despite massive waste and fraud can be counted among the world’s top performers. China has also set out a grand-scale vision for global connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that could, in fact, transform the international landscape. The fact that the BRI is self-serving—what better means of off-loading Chinese overcapacity in heavily polluting industries than by building infrastructure elsewhere—is somewhat beside the point. There is the opportunity for “win-win” cooperation as the Chinese like to say; it is up to other countries to tell China when projects don’t meet their needs (as Pakistan and Nepal have done recently). There will be many white elephants along the way, but there is a lot of leadership demonstrated in conceptualizing a worldwide infrastructure project to facilitate trade and investment globally. (As a reality check, it is noteworthy that while China is the largest trading partner for much of the world, it is not the largest investor in any overall region.)
Most analysts raise the example of climate change in discussing Chinese leadership. I have written before about why China should not be considered a climate leader—at least not yet. But to sum up my argument briefly, China continues to develop significant numbers of carbon emitting coal-to-chemical plants that, if completed, are equal to roughly 10 percent of its current CO2 contribution and more than Germany’s total carbon emissions in 2015. (This doesn’t even include its planned export of more than 100 coal-fired power plants through its Belt and Road Initiative.) In 2018, the independent monitoring groups German Watch and Climate Action Network ranked China 41st in terms of how much it has done to avoid climate change and how much it plans to do. But most important, for real leadership on climate change, China should be rallying other countries to take on even more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets or leading the charge on transparency in monitoring and reporting—yet China is doing neither of these things and is even a drag on the transparency front.
Of course, no discussion of world leadership should ignore the quality of governance that a country brings to the table. President Xi suggested at the October 2017 19th Party Congress that China could serve as a model for—or at least advise—other countries on their development. Yet with its facial and voice recognition software, social credit system, and renewed effort to persuade Chinese citizens to report on each other, China is well on its way to becoming a police state. Watching Beijing’s adoption of repressive new political measures, as well as the gradual encroachment of mainland political norms on Hong Kong citizens, is devastating. Would any society in the world willingly subscribe to a political model such as China’s? Moreover, China behaves as a bully—wielding its economic leverage not to advance global goods such as containing nuclear proliferation but instead to punish other countries for perceived political infractions. Norway, South Korea, the Philippines, and even tiny Palau have all felt the economic wrath of China in the recent past for making decisions with which Beijing disagreed. (Interestingly, none of the countries reversed course in the face of Chinese sanctions.)
Finally, part of being a world leader means that others will follow. Yet even in China’s own backyard, there is little indication that many countries are excited at the prospect of Chinese leadership. A quick look at the most recent Pew Poll suggests that among the larger countries in Asia, most citizens are far from willing to jump on the China express. Responding to a question of “How much confidence do you have in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs?,” the response “a lot” was voiced by 12 percent in the Philippines and 0 percent in Japan. The rest of the countries—Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam—ranged from 3 to 4 percent. Astonishingly, in India, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, confidence in President Trump was higher than in President Xi.
There is little doubt that President Trump is sharply diminishing U.S. standing globally. His erratic tweets and impulsive policy pronouncements make the United States appear an unreliable partner—no matter how hard his cabinet tries to mitigate the damage. He is harming U.S. innovative capacity through his mean-spirited policies on immigration. And the impending explosion in the U.S. deficit will burden generations of Americans to come.
Yet even as the United States loses standing, China is not the natural stand-in. China has yet to demonstrate the essential elements of global leadership—a willingness and ability to bring others to the table to forge consensus, and to align and, if necessary, subordinate its own narrow interests to those of the larger international community. China could one day fill the role—but until it does, let’s look to Europe, Canada, and perhaps Japan for the type of leadership the world needs in the absence of the United States.
Elizabeth Economy is the C. V. Starr senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.