The world’s leading democracy, the United States (US), is looking increasingly like the world’s biggest and oldest surviving autocracy, China. By pursuing aggressively unilateral policies that flout broad global consensus, President Donald Trump effectively justifies his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s longtime defiance of international law, exacerbating already serious risks to the rules-based world order.
China is aggressively pursuing its territorial claims in the South China Sea – including by militarizing disputed areas and pushing its borders far out into international waters – despite an international arbitral ruling invalidating them. Moreover, the country has weaponized transborder river flows and used trade as an instrument of geo-economic coercion against countries that refuse to toe its line.
The US has often condemned these actions. But, under Trump, those condemnations have lost credibility, and not just because they are interspersed with praise for Xi, whom Trump has called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” In fact, Trump’s behavior has heightened the sense of US hypocrisy, emboldening China further in its territorial and maritime revisionism in the Indo-Pacific region.
To be sure, the US has long pursued a unilateralist foreign policy, exemplified by George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and Barack Obama’s 2011 overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Although Trump has not (yet) toppled a regime, he has taken the approach of assertive unilateralism several steps further, waging a multi-pronged assault on the international order.
Almost immediately upon entering the White House, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade and investment agreement brokered by Obama. Soon after, Trump rejected the Paris climate agreement, with its aim to keep global temperatures “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, making the US the only country not participating in that endeavor.
More recently, Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite a broad international consensus to determine the contested city’s status within the context of broader negotiations on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the embassy was opened, Palestinian residents of Gaza escalated their protests demanding that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel, prompting Israeli soldiers to kill at least 62 demonstrators and wound more than 1,500 others at the Gaza boundary fence.
Trump shoulders no small share of the blame for these casualties, not to mention the destruction of America’s traditional role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same will go for whatever conflict and instability arises from Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s full compliance with its terms.
Trump’s assault on the rules-based order extends also – and ominously – to trade. While Trump has blinked on China by putting on hold his promised sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports to the US, he has attempted to coerce and shame US allies like Japan, India, and South Korea, even though their combined trade surplus with the US – US$95.6 billion in 2017 – amounts to about a quarter of China’s.
Trump has forced South Korea to accept a new trade deal and has sought to squeeze India’s important information technology industry – which generates output worth US$150 billion per year – by imposing a restrictive visa policy. As for Japan, last month Trump forced a reluctant Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to accept a new trade framework that the US views as a precursor to negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement.
Japan would prefer the US to rejoin the now-Japan-led TPP, which would ensure greater overall trade liberalization and a more level playing field than a bilateral deal, which the US would try to tilt in its own favor. But Trump – who has also refused to exclude permanently Japan, the European Union, and Canada from his administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs – pays no mind to his allies’ preferences.
Trump’s trade tactics, aimed at stemming America’s relative economic decline, reflect the same muscular mercantilism that China has used to become rich and powerful. Both countries are now not only actively undermining the rules-based trading system; they seem to be proving that, as long as a country is powerful enough, it can flout shared rules and norms with impunity. In today’s world, it seems, strength respects only strength.
This dynamic can be seen in the way Trump and Xi respond to each other’s unilateralism. When the US deployed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea, but not against America.
Likewise, after Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages official visits between the US and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic to break diplomatic ties with the Taiwanese government. The US, however, faced no consequences from China.
As for Trump, while he has pressed China to change its trade policies, he has given Xi a pass on the South China Sea, taking only symbolic steps – such as freedom of navigation operations – against Chinese expansionism. He also stayed silent in March, when Chinese military threats forced Vietnam to halt oil drilling within its own exclusive economic zone. And he chose to remain neutral last summer, when China’s road-building on the disputed Doklam plateau triggered a military standoff with India.
Trump’s “America First” strategy and Xi’s “Chinese dream” are founded on a common premise: that the world’s two biggest powers have complete latitude to act in their own interest. The G2 world order that they are creating is thus hardly an order at all. It is a trap, in which countries are forced to choose between an unpredictable and transactional Trump-led US and an ambitious and predatory China.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.