Beijing – Even as Donald Trump has pulled the United States inward under his “America First” presidency, China has had only halting success at capitalizing on a global leadership vacuum, presenting openings for a more internationalist Joe Biden administration if he wins next month’s election.
Under Trump, Washington abandoned the Paris climate pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO, and ditched the Iran nuclear deal.
It has announced that it will withdraw from the World Health Organization next July, and has crippled the World Trade Organization by blocking appointments to its appeals panel.
Beijing, which has accused Washington of being “addicted to quitting,” has struck a more globalist posture under President Xi Jinping: Chinese officials head four of the 15 U.N. agencies, and Beijing has boosted its WHO commitment by $2 billion.
As it has sought a seat at the table more befitting its status as the world’s number-two economy, China has also formed its own multilateral institutions, including the Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
“China has been trying its best to take advantage of the U.S. retreat to advance its own goals,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Nevertheless, China has had difficulty translating its growing influence into foreign policy success,” he said.
While China has now all-but-quashed the spread of the COVID-19 virus and has become a leader in vaccine efforts, its early mishandling of the outbreak that began in Wuhan has triggered a global backlash.
Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, its mass detention of Uighur Muslims, its island-building in the South China Sea, sabre-rattling towards Taiwan and more aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy have also eroded sentiment towards China — even as Trump’s policies have undermined U.S. standing.
That has left China struggling to leverage the exasperation of some U.S. allies towards Washington under Trump, with State Councillor Wang Yi, the government’s top diplomat, facing pushback over Hong Kong and other issues during a recent five-country visit to Europe.
“Many see the U.S. retreat from global institutions under Trump as ceding fertile ground to China in this area, but what is striking is how much China’s so-called wolf-warrior diplomacy has undercut their ability to take advantage,” said Susan Thornton, who was the top U.S. diplomat for Asia early in the Trump administration.
A survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that unfavorable views towards China in advanced economies including the United States had soared over the past year.
In April, an internal Chinese report warned that Beijing faced a rising wave of hostility in the aftermath of the virus, with global anti-China sentiment at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Reuters reported in May, citing people familiar with the matter.
If Biden wins, he is expected to maintain a tough stance on China but also to engage with allies and international bodies in a more traditional way. He has said he would keep the United States in the WHO and rejoin the Paris climate accord.
“On many issues of global governance, there is still much room for cooperation between the two countries,” such as climate and COVID-19, said Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University School of International Studies who has advised China’s government.
Despite its growing economic and military might, China has been a sometimes-awkward multilateral leader, insisting that it is still a developing country and does not want to replace the United States.
Its diplomatic ties tend to be transactional, with a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and a demand that it gets the same treatment, blasting what it calls Washington’s “long-arm jurisdiction.”
Its Belt and Road initiative has been criticized for a lack of transparency, environmental concerns and the financial sustainability of projects, although the AIIB has been credited with adhering to global standards.
China’s success at putting one of its own as head of France-based police coordination agency Interpol ended disastrously when the chief, Meng Hongwei, resigned after going missing in China, where he was sentenced to jail this year for graft.
“China’s explicit ambitions to ‘lead the reform of the global governance system’ have not been clearly defined,” said Julian Gewirtz, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These statements are often swaddled in gauzy platitudes — and that means the rest of the world should judge China by its track record rather than its promises.”
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