At Davos & UN, Xi Firms China’s Global-Leader Status

China President Xi Jinping giving keynote speech at Davos.

China President Xi Jinping last week took center stage at two international gatherings: Davos and the United Nations. His speeches there helped solidify China’s calculated effort to establish itself as a global economic and political leader.

Davos, sponsored by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum, gathers the globe’s business, political, and academic shakers to “shape global, regional, and industry agendas”. It’s been a trademark of the West’s control of the world economy. Xi’s arrival was the first appearance by a Chinese leader, and his giving the keynote address symbolizes the West’s understanding of China’s established international economic influence.

Story continues below.

Xi’s Davos speech repeatedly emphasized “economic globalization” and international cooperation, a sharp contrast to Donald Trump, who at the week’s end would take the oath of office as the new President of the United States. Trump’s rhetoric and first actions as president have stressed American nationalism and opposition to globalization. Without naming names, Xi alluded to Trump in his Davos speech, stating:

We should commit ourselves to growing an open global economy to share opportunities and interests through opening-up and achieve win-win outcomes. One should not just retreat to the harbor when encountering a storm, for this will never get us to the other shore of the ocean. We must redouble efforts to develop global connectivity to enable all countries to achieve inter-connected growth and share prosperity. We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation through opening-up and say no to protectionism. Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.

Xi opposes hegemony, protectionism

Xi followed his Davos speech with an address at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva. Speaking on China’s place in international affairs, Xi became more specific, including China’s goal for relationships with other countries, including the U.S.:

We will build a circle of friends across the whole world…We will strive to build a new model of major country relations with the United States, a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with Russia, a partnership for peace, growth, and reform among different civilizations and a partnership of unity and cooperation with BRICS countries.

Story continues below.

But at the UN, Xi also alluded to the U.S., contrasting China’s goals with any “hegemon”:

Trade protectionism and self-isolation will benefit no one…Big countries should treat smaller countries as equals instead of acting as a hegemon imposing their will on others… 

…We always put people’s rights and interests above everything else and we have worked hard to develop and uphold human rights. China will never seek expansion, hegemony or sphere of influence.

China’s Economic Evolution

In recent decades, China built an industrial base that has thrust it into a global economic leadership role. Its economic progress, according to the World Bank, allowed China to lift “more than 600 million people out of poverty between 1981 and 2004.” China’s population is 1.2 billion, or about one-seventh of the globe’s people.

Notes the World Bank in its China profile:

Rapid growth and urbanization have been central to China’s poverty reduction in the past 25 years, as have a number of reforms, including the opening of the economy to global trade and investment. Even as the overall level of poverty has dropped, inequality has increased, and remaining poverty has become concentrated in rural and minority areas.

Story continues below.

The government has implemented a series of programs to identify and reach those who have not reaped the full benefits of China’s rapid growth. Prior to 1990, China’s poverty reduction pro­gram depended primarily on single-year and single-sector projects that were not capa­ble of overcoming poverty in the worst-affected areas. In addition, the statistical system used to assess where the poor were located was limited.

This economic growth also has led to dire environmental problems, including both air and water pollution. Xi’s administration has made major efforts to solve those, but it will take years to accomplish. They’ve begun to turn away from coal, signing major contracts with Russia for supplying China with oil and natural gas. And Xi’s administration has also pushed for sustainable energy projects, leading Beijing to a world leadership role in green energy. This, in turn, led to Xi joining President Obama last year in signing the Paris Climate Accord, the world’s major effort to combat climate change.

China's One Belt, One Road Initiative
China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

Meanwhile, Xi has spent the last couple of years on a global quest for cooperative economic development. He has visited continents from Africa to South America to Europe, arranging trade and security pacts. And he has stressed infrastructure construction, specifically in Africa and South America, where Chinese companies can come in and help countries build highways, railroads, and businesses to increase jobs for local citizens and trade advantages with China.

While doing this, Xi has preached how China will not interfere with a country’s internal affairs, and opposes any efforts at hegemony.

Xi has also led China in an ambitious global plan for economic development: The One Belt, One Road Initiative. Its two main components are the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB) and oceangoing “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR). The area covers primarily Asia and Europe, comprising about 60 countries. Different projects are springing up within this. The latest was seen this past week in the UK, when the first train from China arrived in London.

U.S. vs China

This Chinese economic growth has been welcomed by U.S. industries who have experienced large sales with China, ranging from Boeing planes, to iPhones, to U.S. corn.

Xi and Putin in Moscow.
Xi and Putin in Moscow.

But China’s success has not been welcomed in Washington. Obama has concentrated on trying to carry on the U.S. hegemonic effort to keep America as the world’s lone superpower, including finding ways to control Eurasia, the connected landmass of Europe and Asia. This means having to try and control Russia and China.

Obama tried to implement the “Asian Pivot”, hoping to limit China trade by excluding Beijing from the now-failed Trans-Pacific Partnership. He opposed China’s efforts to form the Asia International Infrastructure Bank; but China was able to bring countries, including the U.K. and others in Europe, together to form the bank.

Obama also tried saber rattling, including challenging China over control of the South China Sea. China has responded by tightening its bond with Russia; the two nations now cooperate in military drills in those waters.

Trump has consistently castigated China while basically praising Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin. Time will tell if Trump can influence the China-Russia bond. But don’t look for China to back down from any U.S. threat. Beijing has come too far. It’s preaching peace and cooperation, but it also has made clear it’s prepared to meet any American challenge.