For the past four years under former president Trump’s administration, the US had surrendered global leadership and replaced it with an inward-looking focus. This shift has allowed China to step into the vacuum and gain an unprecedented influence which otherwise will not be possible under normal circumstances. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
As part of its America First policy, the former Trump administration had withdrawn from multilateral institutions and agreements like World Health Organization (WHO), Paris Climate Accord, and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact.
Beside damaging America’s international reputation, this policy had the unintended effect of elevating China’s status because it presented a once in a lifetime opportunity to China to step into the global leadership vacuum left by the US.
In the years to come, China may overtake the US to be the top superpower in the world with little resistance as the new Biden administration is too consumed with internal politicking, and the EU is putting economic interest over upholding democratic principles.
America First is making China Great
In one of the more serious consequences of the America First policy, as the US retreated from the global stage and fumbled at containing the pandemic domestically, which so far has resulted in a death toll of 400,000, China has astutely taken a leadership position in leading the world in fighting COVID-19 through its pandemic politics.
The Communist Party of China (CCP) took action by first propagating its success of fighting the virus and then supplying Chinese-made vaccines and giving loans to developing countries which could not afford the more expensive western ones. China also donated big quantities of face masks, personal protective equipment, test kits and ventilators to countries in need.
Adding another feather in its cap, in September 2020, China signed on to COVAX, a massive global alliance of 170 countries, minus the US, to equitably distribute vaccines to both rich and poor countries alike.
On the economic front, on 15 November 2020, China scored a distinctive achievement with the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a new trade deal with 10 Southeast Asian countries, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand that covers a population of 2.2 billion and economies whose combined GDP total US$26 trillion.
In a crowning moment of a tumultuous year, China became the only major economy to avoid recession caused by the pandemic in 2020 and posted a GDP growth rate of 2.3 percent, finishing off the year in relatively good shape. Even with the global pandemic raging unabated in 2021, China is poised to achieve 8.4 percent GDP growth, according to estimates.
The wolf bares its fangs
As Trump was more interested in his own personal interest rather than the interest of the country he has pledged to serve, there was a lack of check and balance against China’s geopolitical ambition.
And thus, China was able to engage in a few major controversial acts, including the pushback on calls to investigate the origin of the COVID-19 virus and crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and not faced any meaningful consequences, which in normal times, will receive condemnation from the US-led global community.
Almost from the start of the pandemic, there have been calls, with Australia taking the lead, for international investigators to be allowed into China to find out how it all started. However, China has rejected calls for an independent international investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, saying that it was “politically motivated”.
After months of negotiation between WHO and China, a visit by a full team of experts seemed to be confirmed for January 2021. But at the last minute, Chinese authority said it was “still negotiating access” with WHO and failed to provide visas for the experts. Finally, on 14 January, the team landed in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 was first detected. Be that as it may, two members of the team were still held back in Singapore during transit.
On 6 January in Hong Kong, in another defining moment, 1,000 police officers were mobilized to arrest only 53 pro-democracy activists whom the authority accused of trying to overthrow the government.
China should take the high road
For these two incidents, China may well have to do what they did for justifiable reasons but the optics certainly do not look good for them, as the global community has the impression of China not being transparent and having something to hide during a deadly pandemic which affects the lives and livelihoods of every human being, and of using overwhelming and disproportionate force on civilian activists respectively.
There is always the lingering suspicion that China is getting a free pass to do what it wants and the CCP is taking this chance to overturn established norms and try to legitimize its authoritarian governance. Hence, this adds to the perception that the CCP cannot be trusted.
Therefore, now that the conditions are right and China has a clear path forward to become the world’s top superpower, the CCP must be a responsible global leader leading by example and merit, not by fear and intimidation.
The authority must renounce the use of gangster-like wolf warrior tactics, which is not useful at all and in fact is repulsive. This vulgar and crude display of power is not befitting the status of China.
Presenting facts and arguments in a timely, measured and statesman-like manner, while cultivating a good image, is a much more elegant and effective way of displaying power.