In 1958, Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched an attempt at the instant industrialization of an agricultural society, including the creation of little backyard steel furnaces in its rural countryside. That vast convulsion went by the optimistic name of the Great Leap Forward. It ended up disrupting the country's agricultural system and causing a disastrous famine in which millions died. If, at that nadir moment in China's modern history, 1960, I had told you that the country would indeed have a successful Great Leap Forward in the years to come, would, in fact, pass Japan to become the world's second largest economy in 2010 and be slated to pass the United States to become number one by 2030, I'm sure you would have considered it an absurd real-world version of a fairy tale. And yet in the years between 1960 and 2018, that's exactly what happened. China industrialized in a staggering way, became a planetary leader in technology, and is now returning to the sort of imperial preeminence that it hasn't known since the Qing dynasty began to buckle under the pressure of the West and the opium wars back in the early nineteenth century.
Think of China's development in the last few decades as the planet's true Great Leap Forward. After all, in my lifetime, that country journeyed from a third world nation to, as historian Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, suggests today, a potential global hegemon. Of course, all of this is happening on a Trumpian planet in which the very meaning of hegemony, as McCoy suggests today, may be up for grabs. Tom
Beijing's Bid for Global Power in the Age of Trump
"America First" Versus China's Strategy of the Four Continents
By Alfred W. McCoy- Advertisement -
As the second year of Donald Trump's presidency and sixth of Xi Jinping's draws to a close, the world seems to be witnessing one of those epochal clashes that can change the contours of global power. Just as conflicts between American President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George produced a failed peace after World War I, competition between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and American President Harry Truman sparked the Cold War, and the rivalry between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, so the empowered presidents of the United States and China are now pursuing bold, intensely personal visions of new global orders that could potentially reshape the trajectory of the twenty-first century -- or bring it all down.
The countries, like their leaders, are a study in contrasts. China is an ascending superpower, riding a wave of rapid economic expansion with a burgeoning industrial and technological infrastructure, a growing share of world trade, and surging self-confidence. The United States is a declining hegemon, with a crumbling infrastructure, a failing educational system, a shrinking slice of the global economy, and a deeply polarized, divided citizenry. After a lifetime as the ultimate political insider, Xi Jinping became China's president in 2013, bringing with him a bold internationalist vision for the economic integration of Asia, Africa, and Europe through monumental investment in infrastructure that could ultimately expand and extend the current global economy. After a short political apprenticeship as a conspiracy advocate, Donald Trump took office in 2017 as an ardent America First nationalist determined to disrupt or even dismantle an American-built-and-dominated international order he disdained for supposedly constraining his country's strength.
Although they started this century on generally amicable terms, China and the U.S. have, in recent years, moved toward military competition and open economic conflict. When China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, Washington was confident that Beijing would play by the established rules and become a compliant member of an American-led international community. There was almost no awareness of what might happen when a fifth of humanity joined the world system as an economic equal for the first time in five centuries.- Advertisement -
By the time Xi Jinping became China's seventh president, a decade of rapid economic growth averaging 11% annually and currency reserves surging toward an unprecedented $4 trillion had created the economic potential for a rapid, radical shift in the global balance of power. After just a few months in office, Xi began tapping those vast reserves to launch a bold geopolitical gambit, a genuine challenge to U.S. dominion over Eurasia and the world beyond. Aglow in its status as the world's sole superpower after "winning" the Cold War, Washington had difficulty at first even grasping such newly developing global realities and was slow to react.
China's bid couldn't have been more fortuitous in its timing. After nearly 70 years as the globe's hegemon, Washington's dominance over the world economy had begun to wither and its once-superior work force to lose its competitive edge. By 2016, in fact, the dislocations brought on by the economic globalization that had gone with American dominion sparked a revolt of the dispossessed in democracies worldwide and in the American heartland, bringing the self-proclaimed "populist" Donald Trump to power. Determined to check his country's decline, he has adopted an aggressive and divisive foreign policy that has roiled long-established alliances in both Asia and Europe and is undoubtedly giving that decline new impetus.
Within months of Trump's entry into the Oval Office, the world was already witnessing a sharp rivalry between Xi's advocacy of a new form of global collaboration and Trump's version of economic nationalism. In the process, humanity seems to be entering a rare historical moment when national leadership and global circumstances have coincided to create an opening for a major shift in the nature of the world order.
Trump's Disruptive Foreign Policy
Despite their constant criticism of Donald Trump's leadership, few among Washington's corps of foreign policy experts have grasped his full impact on the historic foundations of American global power. The world order that Washington built after World War II rested upon what I've called a "delicate duality": an American imperium of raw military and economic power married to a community of sovereign nations, equal under the rule of law and governed through international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
On the realpolitik side of that duality, Washington constructed a four-tier apparatus -- military, diplomatic, economic, and clandestine -- to advance a global dominion of unprecedented wealth and power. This apparatus rested on hundreds of military bases in Europe and Asia that made the U.S. the first power in history to dominate (if not control) the Eurasian continent.- Advertisement -
Even after the Cold War ended, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned that Washington would remain the world's preeminent power only as long as it maintained its geopolitical dominion over Eurasia. In the decade before Trump's election, there were, however, already signs that America's hegemony was on a downward trajectory as its share of global economic power fell from 50% in 1950 to just 15% in 2017. Many financial forecasts now project that China will surpass the U.S. as the world's number one economy by 2030, if not before.
In this era of decline, there has emerged from President Trump's torrent of tweets and off-the-cuff remarks a surprisingly coherent and grim vision of America's place in the present world order. Instead of reigning confidently over international organizations, multilateral alliances, and a globalized economy, Trump evidently sees America standing alone and beleaguered in an increasingly troubled world -- exploited by self-aggrandizing allies, battered by unequal trade terms, threatened by tides of undocumented immigrants, and betrayed by self-serving elites too timid or compromised to defend the nation's interests.
Instead of multilateral trade pacts like NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or even the WTO, Trump favors bilateral deals rewritten to the (supposed) advantage of the United States. In place of the usual democratic allies like Canada and Germany, he is trying to weave a web of personal ties to avowedly nationalist and autocratic leaders of a sort he clearly admires: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orba'n in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Adel Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.