China’s message to the world this year couldn’t be clearer: Choose between us and America

Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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Last year, Xi Jinping defended globalization and free trade in the first-ever address given by any Chinese president in Davos, and rebuked many of Donald Trump’s “America First” policies without mentioning his name. This year, although Xi is not at the annual gathering of the global elite (while Trump is), China has in fact delivered a much stronger message about global leadership: It’s either us or America.

The world’s political and business leaders should choose from “two fundamentally different outlooks” for the state of the world: One is Xi’s “shared future” vision and the other is Trump’s “America First” policy, said state news agency Xinhua in a commentary published yesterday (Jan. 24). The right approach, Xinhua said, is of course Xi’s.

The narrative that China is poised to fill the global leadership vacuum left by the US has grown stronger since Xi’s Davos debut. But it’s the first time that Chinese state media has stated outright that the world should choose between China and America to determine the future of globalization.

Trump’s “America First” policy has “infused anxiety into both allies and the broader world,” Xinhua wrote. “Although what he is about to say at the globalist brainstorming feast on Friday remains guesswork, few believe this particular pulpit would be able to make him turn his back on the poster boy of a rising isolationist tendency that many fear is fragmenting the world.”

The article calls on the world to embrace a “Xi-style collaborative approach,” because of the “overarching truth of today’s world: The life of different peoples and the interests of different countries have become so closely intertwined that mankind has no future but a shared one.”

This year’s Davos theme is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” an idea Xinhua said was developed from Xi’s catchphrase “a community with a shared future for mankind.” That’s a term Xi’s often used since taking office in 2012, and also featured in his Davos speech last year.

The Xinhua commentary was published shortly after Liu He, a top economic advisor and right-hand man to Xi, addressed Davos attendees about China’s economic policy. In his speech, Liu made lofty rhetorical commitments to the idea of globalization, and credited Xi for such efforts.

Last week, state mouthpiece People’s Daily published a commentary calling on China to seize the “historic opportunity” to reshape the world order, as “the world has never focused on China so much and needed China so much as it does now.”

The latest round of rhetoric comes after Xi declared that China has entered a “new era” and is moving closer to the world’s center stage, during a Communist Party conclave in October. Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, will also preside over series of highly symbolic anniversaries during his second five-year-term that just started. Those include this year’s 40th anniversary of the implementation of China’s reform and opening-up policy, and the 70th anniversary of the founding of communist China next year.

Tensions between the US and China are playing out beyond mere rhetoric. The Trump administration announced earlier this week that it would impose a 30% tariff on imported solar panels, a huge blow to China, the world’s largest supplier of the products. China, for its part, passed this week new regulations that would tighten scrutiny over intellectual property (IP) transfers to foreign companies, citing national security as the reason. The Trump White House has accused Beijing of forcing US companies to transfer their IP to China as a cost of doing business there, and launched an investigation into such practices.

“The Chinese for quite a little while have been superb at free-trade rhetoric and even more superb at highly protectionist behaviour,” said US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross in Davos this week. “Every time the US does anything to deal with a problem, we are called protectionist.”