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As Trump Adopts 'America First' Policy, China's Global Role Could Change


China's president Xi Jinping gave some sign of how eager he is to take on a global leadership role. He gave a speech in Davos, Switzerland last week defending free trade and globalization. Robert Daly is a China expert at the Wilson Center. He told me Xi and other Chinese leaders are paying close attention to signals from the new U.S. administration.

ROBERT DALY: His speech was I think strategically very intelligent because he knew that the people at Davos, and especially people within China, had listened carefully to President-elect Trump's words about America first and saw an opportunity for China, which is already the world's leading trading nation, to step in and be seen as, if not actually to be, the defender of the global liberal trading order.

SHAPIRO: It goes far beyond trade though, there are issues of environmental policy, military policy, human rights where the U.S. has traditionally been a - or the - leader. On which of these do you see China trying to fill the space the most?

DALY: Xi Jinping went to Davos for the same reason that he was glad to lead the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou last summer. As China gets stronger, China wants to be seen as - and in fact to be when it's ready - the leader, the hegemon if you like, although China wouldn't use that word, in at least the Eastern Hemisphere. So in the strategic sphere, China wants to call the shots in the Western Pacific, in the South China Sea. It wants as the world's leading trading nation, as the world's largest market, as the world's largest consumer base to be able to shape the terms of global trade.

And as Donald Trump at least appears with America first to pull back and to talk about America winning, Xi Jinping is very happy to step forward and talk about win-win, to present himself as the benign leader of the liberal trading order and the liberal security order. The problem for Xi Jinping is that his practices in China itself are increasingly illiberal. China is preaching what it doesn't practice.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?

DALY: I mean that while China says that it opposes protectionism, China is in fact far more protectionist than the United States. The barriers to trade are high. It imposes much higher tariffs than does the United States. And United States companies are not nearly as free to invest in China, and neither are European companies or companies from Japan, as China is to invest here.

So I think one of the things we'll see is more invocation of reciprocity in the United States, and the test will be the old Ross Perot test - I'll give you the same deal you gave me. China's Dalian Wanda, for example, owns a majority of the screens in American theaters. Question, would an American company be allowed to own the majority of screens in China? It is unthinkable, so why are we permitting that here?

SHAPIRO: If you were advising Chinese President Xi Jinping right now, what would you tell him to do?

DALY: In terms of China's own interests, I'd advise him to do precisely what he's doing. It's very smart strategically. His leadership is still largely symbolic in that he is not ready either to liberalize at home or to incur costs, but because China is bringing so much investment, China has the goods and it's playing big when America is retreating, preaching globalization, preaching civil society, but bringing very little to the table.

SHAPIRO: Why should this matter to most Americans?

DALY: It should matter to most Americans because even if we want to withdraw from multilateral organizations and multilateral trading agreements and renegotiate one-on-one as President Trump has said he wants to do, you cannot wish China away. Even when we negotiate one-on-one with Canada, China is very much at the table. They are the primary market for Canadian natural resources, for Canadian grains. And Canada, when it negotiates with us, knows it has China as the world's biggest investor, trading nation and market to play off against the United States.

We are 5 percent of the world's population, China is 20 percent and growing. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute here in Washington has said 1.3 billion times anything equals a whole hell of a lot.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

DALY: The law of large numbers means increasingly China is going to be number one in various ways. How will that sit with the United States as a cultural matter, as a strategic matter and as an economic matter? You can't ignore China.

SHAPIRO: Robert Daly is a China expert at the Wilson Center. Thanks for coming in to the studio.

DALY: Thank you.


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