The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summits, which bring together leaders from around 20 Pacific Ocean coastal states, are not usually the most exciting or significant moments in international relations.
But the summit that just ended in Port Moresby is possibly the prelude to what will be the greatest confrontation in the 21st century: conquering China against the declining United States.
In this confrontation, the trade war that began under the Trump administration is just one of the sources of contention that could lead to a head-on collision tomorrow.
In 30 years, the leaders of APEC have never failed to produce a joint statement at the end of their meeting. These conventional, repetitive texts are worth whatever they’re worth under normal circumstances. But when a hidden confrontation between the two elephants in the room prevents the writing of even a few minimalist paragraphs, that’s a crisis.
A one-time failure does not create a pattern, but it’s notable when it happens. When Donald Trump, the great finger-pointer, the man who continually complains like an 8-year-old, says that Beijing is not playing fair and turns the rules of international trade to its own advantage, this time, he is absolutely right.
Chinese leaders and entrepreneurs have built phenomenal growth by stealing intellectual property and looting foreign technology while vigorously protecting their own industries. They did this by taking full advantage of China’s integration into the World Trade Organization after 2001.
Exporting almost limitlessly to the four corners of the world, China has built its super-growth by flooding the markets with products that were simple and labor intensive at first, but which quickly became more and more sophisticated and cutting-edge.
The country is now competing with California’s artificial intelligence and Germany’s high-technology industry. It invests massively in research, while the U.S. government has disinvested.
China is no longer playing catch-up; instead, it is on the verge of taking over in several crucial sectors. Moreover, Beijing is effectively courting new markets in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, the focal point of trade and strategic competition between Beijing and Washington.
As for the increasingly ruthless dictatorship that holds the reins in Beijing (see the quasi-genocide of Uyghurs and Tibetans), it is becoming more effective on the trade front than the economic policies of democratic states. Europe is searching in vain for a path toward continental revival; the United States no longer believes in public investment or multilateral cooperation.
None of this means that the White House’s chosen response is the right one. After accusing the entire world of “playing” the United States − though things have calmed with his two immediate neighbors and with Europe − Trump is now engaging with Beijing in his usual, preferred manner of singular and bilateral confrontation, and this is a fight that he could well lose.
As Washington bawls, withdraws and complains about everything, China is cleverly playing its pawns. Combining clientelism, real development (the “new Silk Road”) and threats (military ascent, land grabs in Asia), it is swaying an entire series of countries in Africa, Central Asia, Europe and, locally, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia. For Washington, true allies in Asia are becoming rare: Japan, South Korea, maybe Taiwan?
Since the beginning of 2010, China has posted the second largest military budget in the world. The so-called People’s Liberation Army, which until the end of the 20th century was tasked mainly with internal repression and territorial defense (except for a few rare adventures), has transformed before our eyes into an armada capable of projecting itself into the world.
China had no aircraft carriers 15 years ago; today, it is building its third. It is installing military bases abroad (in Djibouti). Is this the new America of the 21st century? Perhaps, with one crucial difference: This economic dynamism is in service of a tyranny that isn’t even pretending to be democratic.