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Donald Trump’s election as US president has increased expectations for China to act as a responsible global power. But Beijing is unlikely to fill these expectations, and China risks being harmed by the fallout of an erratic and possibly reckless US foreign policy. 

Two chessmen with US and chinese flag

The outlines of a future Trump foreign policy may be blurry at best, but this much is clear: the world can no longer count on the US to participate, let alone to lead, on big multilateral issues such as trade and climate change. The implications of this shift became clear during the recent APEC summit in Lima as well as the climate conference in Marrakech, the follow-up meeting on the Paris Agreement. Neither outgoing President Barack Obama (in Lima) nor his Secretary of State John Kerry (in Marrakech) could quell anxieties that the US would shift towards protectionism and renege on its commitments to combat climate change.

Trump has already announced that he will quickly pull America out of the largest multilateral trade agreement currently under discussion, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He wants to negotiate bilateral trade deals with the other TPP member states instead, which could wreak havoc with the existing global trade order under the WTO. This order is built on the principles of market liberalization and reciprocity and endowed with a finely honed, quasi-judicial dispute settlement system. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see a Trump administration reject a WTO dispute settlement finding that declares the US in breach of its WTO obligations, and it would get away with it, as those findings ultimately cannot be enforced. Others might follow that bad example, and the WTO order would unravel.

China’s alternative regional trade arrangements

In Lima, China seemed eager to fill the gap as a leader on global trade. It has two alternative regional trade arrangements on offer. One is the Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area, which would include all APEC member states; the other is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would cover East Asia but exclude America. Those two Chinese proposals reflect the two basic alternative courses of action that the rest of the world is now facing: trying to bring Washington somehow back into the fold of the established order with its new management, or going it alone without America.  

Trump also seems determined to wind back US climate policies. If the European Union were in better shape, it could expect to benefit politically from Washington’s withdrawal, but as things stand now many delegates in Marrakech, just as in Lima, were looking to China to take up America’s mantle of leadership. Again, Beijing was happy to oblige, and the Chinese representative used this occasion to pointedly admonish all signatories of the Paris Agreement to live up to their self-defined emission reductions.

Beijing’s utilitarian approach to global order

At least for now, China appears to be the big beneficiary of Donald Trump’s new course of “America First.” But does this mean that Beijing is ready to assume the role of a “responsible stakeholder,” as Robert Zoellick, then US Deputy Secretary of State, famously demanded in 2005? There is reason to worry about a new international order “with Chinese characteristics,” which would be efficient perhaps, but certainly no longer liberal – and above all designed to serve Chinese interests.

There is also reason to doubt China’s willingness and ability to take over the role of the world’s leading power from the U.S.. The China scholar Kerry Brown rightly argues that Beijing does not have an alternative vision for the global order; in his words, China is “the ultimate utilitarian power”. He is wrong, however, to see this as reassuring: Beijing’s utilitarian approach will make it highly reluctant to assume the burden of global leadership. And even if it wanted to, the emerging power may find that the hole a retreating US would leave at the center of global governance is too big to fill. On the contrary, the turbulences caused by an American retreat from global leadership could end up turning Beijing's short-term gains into long-term losses.