Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Can Trump Reverse Global Disapproval of the US?

This piece first appeared in Asia Times.

The recent Gallup poll reported that worldwide approval of China’s global leadership role has surpassed the approval rating for the US. The difference while small suggests a trend in the world perception that the two great powers are heading in opposite directions. China is moving up and the US down.

That the US approval rating is down can be directly attributed to President Trump’s “America first”—and to hell with everybody else—approach. It’s no surprise that neighboring countries that know him best, Canada and Mexico, show the biggest drop in approval of the US.

All the other traditional allies of the US, namely western European countries, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Latin America are the major countries/regions that responded with more than 10% decline in approval.

In fact the global approval rating of America, at an average of 30%, has hit an all time low, below even the strong disapproval evaluation of the George W. Bush regime. The same poll indicates that China has risen behind Germany as the second most admired great power.

It’s appropriate to compare the contrasting approaches of the US and China internationally as a way of understanding this trend and what might presage for the future.

Trump has not expressed any vision for America or for the world nor any policy or strategy going forward other than to increase defense spending. He has said he will make America great again but he hasn’t said anything specific that the public can point to, “aha that’s how we going to get to that greatness.”

President Xi of China on the other hand has carefully outlined his domestic and international agenda. Domestically, he wants to leave no one behind and lift those remaining below the poverty line out of poverty. Trump doesn’t care about those making below minimum wage; he just wants to send them back to wherever country they came from.

China has—at last—embarked on pollution abatement and remediation of past environmental damages. They not only believe in the science behind climate change but are actively taking steps to reverse green house gas emissions.

To Trump, science is voodoo hocus-pocus and he won’t take any steps that he thinks would hurt the economy. (One can question whether Trump’s grasp of economics is any better than of science.) Thus he withdrew from the Paris Accord and by default China has taken over the leadership in combating climate change.

Internationally, Xi has pointed to the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) as an important part of China’s diplomatic toolkit. Virtually any country interested in working with China, can. China has financed and helped construct highways in Central Asia, new railroads in Africa, harbors in Africa, Asia and Europe.

A number of projects are under feasibility study in Latin America. These programs are not handouts but with financing provided by development banks mostly via competitive bids; albeit China has won most of the projects.

Of course, not all the completed projects have worked out satisfactorily. The best known debacle was Sri Lanka.  The Colombo government agreed to nearly $15 billion in Chinese financing for the construction of large infrastructure projects such as a power plant, a new airport, improvement of existing port as well as a new port.

Unfortunately, the completed projects did not boost the economy to the projected level such that the government receipts could service the debt. The country development model used to finance the Sri Lanka projects is the same as the one used by World Bank and Asian Development Bank. In this case, the model didn’t work.

Critics from the west have been quick to label the Sri Lanka experience as an example of China’s exercise of “sharp” power. Since no military force is involved, a new belittling term had to be coined to disparage China’s image.

Notwithstanding what happened in Sri Lanka, others are undaunted by China’s supposedly sharp elbows. Soon a ministerial meeting will take place between Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) representing 33 countries and China to explore broader and deeper cooperation. 

National leaders of the member states of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation met Premier Li Keqiang just last week to discuss not only economic cooperation but also how China can provide increasing training and scholarships to the students of the other member states. In addition to China other members are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

At the same time parliament leaders from seven Nordic and Baltic countries were calling on President Xi in Beijing, a first time for these countries to come as a group. From their visit, they expressed admiration for what China has achieved, the technological innovations they have seen and the potential to cooperate with China as part of the BRI.

Other than countries that see themselves as rivals of China, such as the U.S., Japan and possibly India, there are few if any other countries that have not expressed the desire to enhance good will and develop a closer relationship with China. Despite hostile views from American politician and pundits, China is simply not perceived as a threat.

Recently at a public forum on Stanford campus, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quoted as saying the American military presence around the world is necessary to combat terrorism. If that’s really the case, he should convince his boss in the White House to stop thinking about China as a possible adversary and think about recruiting China as a partner.

China shares common interest in counterterrorism and possess some new weapons to add to the fight. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) coupled with high quality security cameras have enabled China’s public security to identify fugitives, criminals and terrorists in real time.

The American military could use such systems in combat zones in the Middle East. The system could also monitor passersby around embassies and scan arriving passengers at the airport immigration—a much more practical alternative to enacting blanket bans of travelers from selected countries.

There are other developments where the US can profit by learning from China. To maintain their hold on manufacturing, China is developing and relying on robotics and automation. China is not trying to hold on to low end manufacturing with low paid workers; China is instead developing manufacturing for high valued products that can do without any workers on the factory floor.

 Somebody should be advising Trump that high end and high precision manufacturing is the future—not the labor intensive, low value products he is trying to wrestle back to America.

As a matter of fact, there is so much to be gained for the two powers to collaborate rather than resort to pointless confrontation. Clearly, China is determined to make friends globally one project at a time. They could even apply their infrastructure expertise to help Trump make America great.

China is not seeking to win at the expense of the US, nor should the US look for vice versa. If both were to cooperate, tension would ease and world approval can only go up for both powers.

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