The word is, under Trump’s motto, "America First,” the U.S. is pulling out of world politics, and ambitious China is seizing the place. Is that true?

The year 2017 was the year of Donald Trump. In light of the political noise he made, however, something went down: China pressed with force into the gap Trump left behind in geopolitics and foreign policy. The U.S. president withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and bowed out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both backtracks are representative of America's lost importance to the benefit of China.

The government in Beijing, meanwhile, is behaving like the guarantor of a free and liberal world order. Already in 2016, the communist nation had presented a plan for gigantic, international infrastructure investments in Eurasia and along the Indian Ocean: highways, rail lines, ports, fiber optic networks — the foundation of globalization. "One Belt, One Road" is the name of the project, also called the New Silk Road. Many poorer nations could profit from such projects; rich Western Europe would then be better connected with the dynamic national economies of East Asia.

OBOR would be a “geostrategic idea in which China establishes its idea of order,” adjudged Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel recently at a conference of the Körber Foundation. “Trade politically, geographically, geopolitically and, ultimately, possibly, also militarily.” With OBOR, China is breaking “into places that were previously defined just as exclusively by the presence and politics of the U.S.,” according to Gabriel. The minister was addressing a concern shared in the capitals of many western nations, because China’s carefully drawn picture of the new liberal peacekeeping power is not coherent.

Chinese Markets Are Still Isolated

Such investments are extremely enticing for poorer nations like Sri Lanka, Pakistan or countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It is questionable whether they will ever be able to repay their loans. It is, however, a fact that the expansion projects of the People’s Republic stand in stark contrast to the "America First" motto which Trump propagates.”

In the meantime, China’s leadership is deftly making use of this public image. Last January at the meeting of the economic elite in Davos, Chinese head of state Xi Jinping behaved like a liberal world citizen, as the representative of the networked world and of free trade. His audience was enthusiastic. Trump’s gloomy, nationalistic inaugural speech a few days later, on the other hand, shocked the governments in the West.

Yet the picture doesn’t have much to do with reality. The economic cadre of the Communist Party is still isolating the domestic markets well from foreign firms. For example, they force them into technology transfers – and are on a buying trip worldwide with public finds, openly as well as covertly. A free economy for China is more likely ... free access for its own firms.

Additionally, the propagated liberalism in economic policy stands in stark contrast to the situation in the country itself. China is still a Leninist, one-party system. The government is currently building a digital surveillance state that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Human rights still count for little.

China Sees Eastern Asia as its Hegemonic Zone

The picture fostered by Chinese propaganda of China as the new worldwide climate protector – the country remained in the Paris climate agreement – is not correct. China has, indeed, long invested in non-fossil fuel energy sources. Firms from China are market leaders in the area of renewable energy today. No country in the world has erected as many solar and wind power plants; the growing cities and the dynamic economy require energy on a massive scale. There is an awareness of moving away from coal.

Yet at the same time, it is by far the greatest emitter of climate-damaging carbon dioxide – in absolute numbers, not per capita – and the country is continuing to build coal power plants due to the high demand for energy. At the world climate conference in Bonn, Beijing's negotiators did not want to enter into any further climate obligations.

Most of the U.S. shift in the direction of China arises less as a result of new policies, and inevitably as the result of rapid economic growth and China’s political and military expansion forced by the Communist Party. Under George W. Bush, the U.S. focused strongly on the Middle East and neglected Asia. The turnabout came under Barack Obama: The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade zone was supposed to become a sort of geostrategic group under the leadership of the U.S.

Unquestionably, a strengthened China views East Asia and South Asia as its hegemonic zone. For the past few years, Beijing has claimed the bulk of the South China Sea, has developed sandbars and cliffs into marine bases and, because of that, is in unresolved territorial conflicts with numerous nations.

The neighboring nations, with the exception of North Korea, therefore generally wish for an arrangement in which, on the one hand, the U.S. provides for their security and the security of the maritime transit routes, and on the other hand, provide that trade and investments with and by China will bring prosperity. Because China increasingly wants to uphold its interests and protect its investments by using economic and military pressure, it is increasingly becoming a balancing act for nations like the Philippines or Vietnam. Who else fills the Trump gap?

For China, Trump’s retreat was more of a stroke of luck, a giant step on the path to becoming the superpower in Southeast Asia. As a result, Trump often spoke of the “Indo-Pacific” on his Asia trip in November, and meant by that a greater region that includes India and keeps China in its place. For that, an older idea called QUAD (Quadrilateral Security) was revived which provides for the cooperation of the four largest democracies in the greater Indo-Pacific region, along with the U.S., Australia and Japan.

Other nations in the Western Pacific are now trying to fill the Trump gap themselves. Japan and Vietnam, for example, want to carry on with the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S. In addition, South Korea and Taiwan, the furthest developed national economies in Eastern Asia and at the same time, stable democracies, are considering whether they will opt in. That would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to become a powerful zone.

It is indisputable that the U.S. is and will remain one of the most important international economic powers. In addition, it commands the most modern military in the world. Above all, it is a strong democracy, even if its institutions are being subject to certain endurance tests under the new administration. The United States’ loss of importance under the new president is therefore only relative. Yet the corrosive effect that a nationalistic and egomaniacal president can have on a liberal world order is not to be overlooked in the context of an ambitious China.