Friday, September 22, 2023

America’s Disarray is China’s Opportunity

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On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy, the youngest American president ever elected, gave his inaugural speech steps from the Capitol. Exactly 60 years later, Joe Biden, America’s longest-serving president, will be sworn in at the same location – days later stormed by an emotional crowd.

Kennedy used the masterful backdrop of Congress to proclaim that “the torch has passed to a new generation.” Mr Biden is the representative of an older generation – who now fear that the torch of freedom is in danger of being extinguished, even in the United States.

Looking again at Kennedy’s speech, it is striking how much it was addressed not to the American people, but to the leaders of the Soviet Union. JFK was speaking at the height of the Cold War. Much of the American elite now thinks the United States is on the verge of a second cold war – this time with China. But, unlike Kennedy, Mr. Biden cannot promise to “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure “the survival and success of freedom” in the world.

The President-elect and his advisers know that their most important job is to ensure the survival and success of freedom in the United States itself. The country is reeling from the double impact of a pandemic and the Trump presidency – as well as a the value of a generation evasive social and economic problems.

America’s disarray is the opportunity for China. As part of a planned response against China, Biden had planned to call a Mountain peak democracies of the world. But, after a coup attempt by a sitting president, America may lack the credibility to act as a unifier of the free world. Mr Biden’s democracy summit likely to be quietly suspended in favor of a Meeting D10 of 10 democracies, united by the United Kingdom.

Much of America’s emerging struggle with China will be a battle for economic influence in the world. At the end of 2019, already 128 countries out of 190 in the world traded more with China than with the United States. China’s central place in the global trading system to increase this year – World Bank projects China’s economy grow at about 8 percent versus 3.5 percent for the United States.

Americans are also struggling with China to shape the technical standards and regulations that govern the global economy. The United States needs new tools that go beyond the coercive power of sanctions.

But Biden’s team, alarmed by the rise of populism and protectionism in the country, made it clear that America is unlikely to sign new trade deals for some time – which will make it harder expansion of American influence.

China, on the other hand, recently signed two major new trade agreements. EU-China investment transaction was agreed in December. The comprehensive regional economic partnership (RCEP) – a free trade agreement between 15 Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea – was concluded in November.

The battle for influence and prestige – or soft power – is also likely to be reshaped by recent scenes in Washington. On the night of the Capitol storm, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, incarnation of the American establishment, desperately tweeted that: “No one in the world is likely to see, respect, fear or depend on us in the same way again. If the post-American era has a start date, it’s almost certainly today.

China’s own prestige and popularity have also suffered greatly over the past year, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its aggression against countries like India and Australia. Last week, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported that the past year has been “the darkest time for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the democratic movement in Tiananmen Square.” The report highlighted the repression in Hong Kong, the internment camps in Xinjiang and the intensification of the crackdown on dissidents in the aftermath of the pandemic.

But while China may not be much loved abroad, it appears relatively confident and stable compared to the United States – an image that will be carefully polished by this year’s celebrations to mark the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Contrast between current states of China and America recalls Osama bin Laden’s sinister aphorism: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”

Many political liberals, horrified by the rise of an authoritarian superpower, argue that the Chinese horse is actually a lot weaker that it seems. It may turn out to be true. But there is also an element of wishful thinking in this vision. An unbiased assessment of world affairs, as it stands, cannot avoid concluding that the United States is in deep trouble right now – and China is well positioned to take advantage of it.

It is not only in China that the principles of political freedom, so vigorously defended by Kennedy, are under attack. Alexei’s arrest this weekend Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, on his return to Moscow – illustrates the meaning of impunity felt by President Vladimir Putin in Russia.

President Donald Trump has been particularly reluctant to speak out against human rights violations committed by Mr. Putin and others. Mr. Biden will not be so reluctant. But his voice is unlikely to carry the strength and conviction of John F. Kennedy’s bugle call of 60 years ago.


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