Chinese President Xi Jinping is treading on dangerous ground. In his speech before the World Economic Forum’s annual conclave of political and economic luminaries in Davos, Xi set out to establish himself as the standard-bearer for globalization and China as a beneficiary from globalization in the past and a leader in the future. Many observers have been quick to support China’s claim to a leadership position, not only because China wants the job but also because the United States appears not to. Rhetoric from the incoming U.S. leadership, with its threat of high tariffs and trade wars, has a distinct antiglobalization flavor. Yet whatever path Washington elects moving forward, anointing China as the world’s “champion of globalization” would be a mistake.
Certainly China has already assumed many of the trappings of global leadership. It is the world’s largest trading power, it boasts the largest standing army, and it behaves like a global leader, proposing new international institutions and arrangements such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the huge connectivity project One Belt, One Road. China’s military has likewise gone global, establishing its first logistics base in Djibouti; and more such bases will likely follow. There is also talk in China’s foreign policy community of the need for the country to build formal alliances, further cementing its position not simply as an emerging or regional leader but as a global power. And, of course, China has embraced opportunities to showcase its leadership potential by hosting prestigious international gatherings such as the G-20 and the Olympics.
Yet real leadership in an era of globalization requires much more. First, there must be both willingness and ability to bring others to the table to meet the world’s most pressing concerns. Although China has partnered with the United States to help address challenges such as climate change, the Ebola virus, and North Korea’s nuclear program, the United States and other nations have had to prod, push, was less than that of Cuba, and in the end, its financial contribution amounted to only three percent that of the United States. With regard to North Korea, China has gradually deepened its commitment to international sanctions, yet its record of enforcing these sanctions on its own companies remains dismal. Even in terms of climate change, where China’s work with the United States has indeed brought new energy to international negotiations, the story isn’t simple. Although China’s demonstrated commitment to clean energy investment is modelworthy, it nonetheless plans to export its most polluting industries, including coal-fired power plants, throughout the world, through its One Belt, One Road initiative. Global leadership has to go beyond prioritizing only one’s own interests.
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