On Wednesday, China confirmed it had sailed its Russian-made aircraft carrier Liaoning into the Strait of Taiwan, calling it a routine operation “accomplished in safety” at the conclusion of recent navy exercises.
At the same time the future U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson specified before the Senate that the intention of the new administration is to “send China a clear signal” about the disputed areas of the South China Sea. “First, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.”
Some would say it was a diplomatic row, of provocations and replies. The truth is that throughout the ballet of declarations, China represented itself as the responsible party.
During the election campaign and in the early discourse of the nations’ president and president-elect, Donald Trump has used mostly anti-China rhetoric: He promised new tariffs, accused China of using the yuan to disrupt the world economy, spoke by phone with the president of Taiwan, cast aside Washington’s historic support of “One China” and accrued a team of personalities known for their anti-China approach.
To all this China responded calmly, managing to contain a certain discomfort. Jack Ma — the star of Chinese entrepreneurship as owner of the e-commerce giant Alibaba — met Trump promising Chinese investment, which could create a million jobs in the United States. In the “Taiwan Affair,” Beijing was patient and proved fairly constructive, proposing internationally the concept of “global governance” so dear to President Xi Jinping.
Xi, at the height of its leadership, is in the process of presenting himself to the world as an international politician who operates in defence of globalization and against the protectionist and isolationist instincts of Western democracies.
For the first time, in Davos, at the World Economic Forum, the gathering will be opened by a Chinese president. That would have been an unthinkable opportunity only 10 years ago and marks a new era.
China offers itself as the world’s agenda setter, a role that until recently was occupied by the United States. And this happened following months of rhetoric from the president-elect focused against the global elites — like Davos goers — wreaking havoc on the world economy.
This shift is not by accident. The Chinese media have stated that China is ready to be the “leader of an open world economic system,” eclipsing America and highlighting Europe’s impotence.
Beijing arrived at this stature after rapidly pushing for it in 2016. China has always been shy on the international stage. Their strategy has always been: We lead our opponents to underestimate us.
But with Xi, everything changed. China has created an investment bank of its own, receiving the accession of major Western countries. It organized the G20 on home turf, in Hangzhou, and on issues from climate change to innovation is serving as a regional and global captain.
The “One Belt One Road” project, the new Silk Road, has helped to materialize dozens of bilateral agreements that will bring Beijing to invest in and profit from a mammoth network of new trade routes.
And Xi, in his inaugural address at the economic forum in Switzerland, from Jan. 17-20, will reaffirm the concepts already expressed at the G20: There’s no turning back. The global market is not up for debate, and the U.S. is unreliable. What it did with the TPP in Asia, it may now do with the TTIP in Europe. China is ready to take the reins in the world, in the name of Xi’s idea of “global governance.”
The key to this approach will be consolidated or questioned by the new tenant of the White House. What happened Wednesday was an appetizer for what’s to come. Tillerson — a little recklessly — likened Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
While Tillerson delivered his speech in the Senate, China said it was willing to meet with its American counterpart at the meeting in Davos: “There are open channels of communication” and a bilateral talk could happen “if the program permits and if there is the desire to do so.” Joe Biden and John Kerry will be in Davos representing the United States. With them also will be members from the team of incoming President Trump.