Can China Replace America as a World Leader?

On the eve of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Lima, Western public discourse saw much discussion of world governance. Due to Trump’s election and his campaign platform positions on withdrawal from the TPP and the Paris Climate Accords, some in the Western media believe that America is now abandoning its global leadership position, and perhaps with a bit of spite, they hold that the “new superpower,” China, will replace the United States as a global leader.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric indeed revealed that he is willing to downsize America’s worldwide battlefront; it seems that he would rather expend more energy and resources on revitalizing the American economy and social infrastructure. But America already globalized long ago, and there is no way for Trump to change the structure of American national interests itself and to redirect sources of American power to other ends for the creation of a “new America”; for this, he cannot rely on traditional notions of isolationism, either.

The West is fond of using the word “leadership” to describe the role of great powers. We must first recognize that because of the variation in national power among countries, on the international stage, practical authority and responsibilities are also respectively disparate. Such authority and responsibility is not bestowed on just the spur of the moment; they are formed from the utilization of comprehensive power both as relics from history and products of real ability. The post-Cold War world is fiercely branded with “American governance.” Many grand [international] frameworks were established and are protected by America, from the global trade and financial systems to the internet and world security.

America has invested and expended much for this leadership, but it has ultimately gained more from it. The status of the U.S. dollar, for instance, is a source of significant wealth from the world market, and domestic financial instability can be pushed to others for shared responsibility. If in the near future America discards its global leadership and becomes a “simplified” America that does not rely on long-term [political] leverage, it would simply cease to be truly American. Such an affair is impossible.

Today, American “leadership” means leading from behind; its power has limits. For the past several years, America has overextended itself and sought to move from a mere “leader” to a true, ultimate authority whose word is final and incontrovertible on the world stage. Its overall global power is still far from that strong because such a goal seeks to move instantly from a position of significant to absolute strength. It seems as if Trump will take a few steps back from the pointless games of “leadership,” planning to trim down some bits of American power.

This could win China space to wield its own leadership power. The problem is—is China willing? Is it ready?

It must be pointed out that there is a fairly large discrepancy between Chinese and American power; China does not have the ability to completely guide the world, as neither China nor the world have made the necessary conceptual [ideological] preparations. It is unimaginable that China could replace America as the leader of the world.

It is a fact that China’s overall power is growing at a rapid rate, and global power structures are subsequently undergoing gradual change. It is only natural that China will begin step-by-step participation in global governance in the long run. This process does not need to be aggravated, avoided or suppressed. China should neither step out prematurely nor dodge the process.

If America does withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, China can persevere in upholding its own end of the deal, but how could China make up for the damages caused by America so dropping the ball? If America not only throws out the TPP but also moves on to fight free trade [in general], would China really benefit from such a mess? Besides, if America were to disregard the Middle East, how could even China have the power to fill the void?

And moreover, if under Trump’s administration America seeks to wholly constrain and exclude China, such as by secluding it from the international trade system or causing nations on the borders to sway toward Washington and check China, what could China do?

As the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative has developed, the Obama administration has sought to undermine it covertly; has this not been effective?

So for sake of future global governance, China and America must cooperate. There is simply no alternative. Perhaps in the long run America’s leadership role cannot be replaced, and China’s continued rise and growth cannot be curbed. To manage such a feat in relations will certainly be a major victory for the U.S., China and every great power, if not the entire world.

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  1. There seems to be an assumption here that there is only one model of leadership and it is exercised by a single, global hegemon. And if it’s not the US, then it will be China, which is not quite ready to take over. The only assumption I want to make is that the US, already in decline, will fall. Has the desire for a multipolar world disappeared as an alternative?

    Certainly China is quickly becoming a local hegemon. If only anxiety-driven Washington would get out of its way, China could more easily and gracefully grow into a leadership role within its sphere of influence, where Japan and South Korea, if not exactly equal in weight, are potential partners in leadership. Washington only needs to abandon the notion that no country except the US is allowed a sphere of influence — certainly not Russia and China. A lot will depend upon how skilfully China manages OBOR, a very long-term project with different phases, each of which will be a reminder that leadership is always a work in progress.

    The future is in Eurasia, a place where there are plenty of contenders for leadership: in addition to Japan and South Korea to the east, there’s Russia to the north, Germany to the distant west in central Europe, and India to the southwest of China. Where Britain will be in ten years’ time is anyone’s guess, but it’s a substantial Eurasian presence too. Eurasia is a perfect training-ground for the idea of multipolarism — and a potential battleground for yet another world war. China’s diplomatic skills will definitely need work.

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