Li Woteng: China Should Fill the Leadership Void Left by the United States

When I saw this article in the Chinese language edition of the Financial Times by independent scholar Li Woteng   黎蜗藤,  it made be think of the interview that former U.S. Embassy Beijing Chargé d’affaires David Rank had on the PBS NewsHour on U.S. television.  The interview on the PBS NewsHour website is entitled:

How Trump’s Paris decision drove the top U.S. diplomat in China to quit

and includes both the interview video and transcript including

DAVID RANK: You know, Judy, up until the day he — in fact, I would say the day before, I — it kind of caught me off-guard. It seemed so improbable that the U.S. would pull out, because Paris is a symbol of U.S. leadership in the region, in the world.

I mean, the benefits that accrue from being a leader and being in Paris just seemed to be so obvious that it sort of caught me off-guard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What were the benefits, in your mind?

DAVID RANK: Look, the — how many agreements are there in the world where two countries, now all but three countries in the world, are members, countries that are sort of the closest partners we have had for 70 years?

It’s one of the most important issues to those countries. And so the benefits of being the leader in that, of, as you said, working together with China to bring about, to make the Paris agreement possible, and being the true leader on climate issues, really is a remarkable benefit.

See also:

China Should Fill the Leadership Void Left by the United States

Li Woteng: China should continue to support the Paris Climate Accord in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal to show leadership. China Should also play the role it should in accepting refugees and in world military governance



Financial Times Chinese Website article in Chinese

In early May, US President Trump announced at the White House that the U.S. was withdrawing from the “Paris Climate Agreement”. Predominantly liberal U.S. punditry all moaned.

Looked at objectively, however, Trump’s withdrawal did indeed have a political basis. He had criticized the Agreement from the start of his campaign and said many times that he would withdraw. An important part of his constituency is blue color workers (such as coal miners) who have lost their jobs with the transition in the energy economy. They had been waiting for Trump to fulfill his pledge. U.S. oil companies looking with covetous eyes on U.S. oil reserves near the seacoasts are also among his supporters. The right wing of the Republican Party has long expressed skepticism about climate change and always opposed this kind of agreement. Trump has procrastinated on this issue; it can be said that by withdrawing from the Agreement only now he is late.

From an economic standpoint, withdrawing from the Agreement has more advantages than disadvantages. In the short term, the U.S. will because of this be able to bolsters its manufacturing sector, and become self-sufficient in energy and perhaps even a major exporter. Lower energy prices also benefit the U.S. investment and manufacturing sectors. Over the medium term, the U.S. is at a disadvantage in developing the new energy sector. Europe and China lead in both technology and markets. The “next piece of cake” that a latecomer could get would be smaller. Moreover, over the long term, global warming will make Alaska a more suitable place for human habitation and so expand the “useful area” of the United States. The Arctic Ocean will become navigable, and the U.S. as the master of the Bering Strait and the Aleutian Islands will draw regional political advantage from the limitless potential of those new trade routes.

However, as the former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, this move affects not just U.S. domestic politics, not just the climate change issue and not just economic issues. The most important issue is the strength of the leadership that the United States now exercises in the world. The most important manifestation of this is the U.S. first signing and now withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. This has seriously damaged the reputation of U.S. diplomacy. Trump is always criticizing international agreement saying how unfair they are to the United States. Not only does he refuse to reduce emissions, he also refuses to help countries suffering harm from emissions. This reveals his essential nature as a small businessman who haggles over every trifle and who is selfish and self-centered. This move shows that the United States in the age of Trump has fundamentally changed. It has retreated from universal human values to America First. The U.S. has unilaterally given up its world leadership role.

Although the world does not have a generally acknowledged “leader”, over the two decades following the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the leading power. The United States has vigorously promoted globalization. It has has in act acquired the “actual” (de facto) position of leader. The reality of the U.S. leadership arises from its top ranking in five categories: the biggest economy, the biggest military, the leader in science and technology, the strongest politically, and having the most influential value systems and soft power.

Equally important, the United States has provided the entire world with an attractive vision for the future. During the era of the “Cold War”, the United States created a vision of opposition to tyranny and democratization. In the “Post Cold War Era”, the U.S. has not only continued to promote democratization but globalization as well. To speak plainly, to be a “world leader” one must be able to inspire the entire world to pursue a common goal. This must be the kind of goal that will benefit the entire world. Obama strongly supported globalization. He proposed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and called on the entire world to fight global warming. This is an important part of creating a political vision and having a voice in world affairs. Obama’s fight against global warming are an even more important part of creating “a community of interests for the benefit of humanity” that legitimizes the U.S. leadership role.

In several areas, such as the economic, military, political and science and technology — that is in areas where “money can solve problems” the U.S. in recent years has felt threatened by China. In other areas, however, just those areas where “money only can’t solve problems” such as values and establishing an attractive political vision — China lags far behind the United States. After China proposed its “One Belt One Road” policy, it has provided an option for a “China vision”. The Chinese vision however is only a discussion about economics. It pales in comparison with Obama’s globalization. What Obama emphasized was a fight against global warming that did not make boosting GDP a top concern. Obama did all he could to fight global warming. It will be part of his historical legacy. Many people don’t understand this. In fact, it is only in this way that the United States, although its relative power is declining, has still kept its strong voice as the world leader. China in the end became a follower and not the manager of the Paris Climate Agreement. On setting the agenda for the Agreement, it was the U.S. that led China by the nose.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement reversed Obama’s policy. Trump completely changed the U.S. line on globalization. Maintaining U.S. leadership will be difficult. The U.S. may become a “hegemon” but already it cannot be a “leader”. The “America First” faction of people like Steve Bannon opposes globalization and don’t care about at all about a “world leadership” role.

This is nothing but a gift from heaven to China which wants to replace the United States as the world leader.

After Trump pulled out of TPP, the issue of whether the mantle of globalization has now fallen on China was a hot topic of discussion at the Davos Economic Forum. But that wasn’t all. The day after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, visiting Europe, announced that both China and Europe will continue to observe and support the Paris Climate Agreement. This is how a “leader” should act.

Some people still look at the world with old eyes and think that China only talks big and doesn’t do anything may now be able to recognize their error. During the time of Hu Jintao, China was indeed courteous but insincere. However, in the “Kyoto Protocol”, China relied on its status as a “developing country” and did not have any emission reduction duties. As everyone knows, Chinese statistics can always be fudged to make them look better. During the president of George W. Bush, although the U.S. and China argued about trifling matters, they jointly stood up to European pressure as international observers understood at the time.

Things changed however in the era of Xi Jinping. First of all, China itself is facing and economic transition. Production greatly exceeds domestic consumption and so China must find various ways to export productive capacity. From another point of view, this means moving the emissions from China to some other country. Secondly, China has found a great commercial opportunity in new energy industries. China already has a large market share in the world new energy industry. Thus it was reasonable for China to become a big supporter of new energy. Thirdly, China’s environmental problems are steadily worsening. Chinese people are getting angrier about it and so the government must pay attention to this issue. Reducing emissions and environmental protection are closely linked (the coal industry is also a highly polluting and high emissions industry). The key point is that Xi Jinping doesn’t share Hu Jintao’s old conservative way of thinking. He is thinking in terms of getting his historical position as a world leader. Moreover, according to the Paris Climate Agreement, China pledged that its emissions would peak in 2030. To be frank, that is a fairly low bar. China could do achieve peak emissions earlier than that without much difficulty. Therefore, China can is entirely capable of “making up for” the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. It could win world acclaim by doing so. It is simply a heaven-sent opportunity for China.

In fact, in addition to the emissions issue, China can also on two globalization issues can take the initiative to fill in to fill the void left by the United States or even more.

The first of these is the refugee issue. North American countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have been active in accepting refugees. According to the refugee report issued by the United States in 2015, the United States has accepted three million refugees in the three decades since it promulgated its laws on refugees. During the eight years of the Obama Administration, the United States took in 60,000 to 70,000 refugees each year. China has been conspicuous by its silence on refugee issues. China a rising, rich and powerful responsible major power, and the proponent of the “one belt one road” plan to built a community of common interest. What leaves one very disappointed, however, is that China has shown on interest in refugee issues. The government is not active on the issue and Chinese people in general just aren’t interested. Even in Hong Kong with its broader perspective, people aren’t at all interested in refugee issues. The Chinese media mostly discusses about how refugee problems arise and how the western countries should assume a greater responsibility for solving refugee problems. Almost nobody, however, says that China should play a larger role in world refugee issues.

Do refugee issues really have nothing to do with China? You might say that the refugees of the Middle East and Africa are a long way from China. However even in the case of refugees from a country well within reach like Myanmar, China pays no attention. That is not consistent with the behavior of a country that wants to be a responsible major power.

The Rohingya people live in Myanmar but they have never had Myanmar citizenship. According to the United Nations, they are one of the most oppressed minorities in the entire world. Over the past few years, many Rohingya people have fled Myanmar in large numbers. The surrounding countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia all set up large refugee camps for them as their first point of refuge. All these countries are making a great effort to help the refugees. But now they are having great difficulty in continuing to accept so many refugees and so have no alternative to returning refugee boats that land illegally. Many refugees as then so dejected that they throw themselves into the sea resulting in a humanitarian tragedy. Currently, many Rohingya people are waiting in the Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia refugee districts for other countries to accept them. The international community was very disappointed that the situation of the Rohingya people did not improve after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in Myanmar. The situation of the Rohingya people has historical roots but now it has become a vital matter for international society. This is not a matter of blaming one party or another but of asking how to protect the most fundamental right of these refugees — their right to survive. There really isn’t any hope left that Aung San Suu Kyi will help, but now shouldn’t China extend a helping hand?

Just think how the United States, which has no connection at all the to the Rohingya people, has been accepting Rohingya refugees for many years. In 2014 alone, the United States accepted 1000 Rohingya refugees. Myanmar is China’s friendly neighbor. It is also the most strategically important country for China in its quest for access a seaport on the Indian Ocean. Aung San Suu Kyi also has a good relationship with China. Xi Jinping has proposed a community of shared interests with the ASEAN nations. He has also said that Asian issues should be decided by Asians. Therefore China should not believe that the Rohingya refugee issue is only the business of Myanmar or of neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and so ignore the issue entirely. The anti-immigration stance of Trump and Bannon is a good opportunity for China to show that its is a major power taking on global responsibilities.

The next issue is participating in solving world military governance issues. In 2009, Chinese warships took part in international activities to protect the Sumatra maritime region. That was the first step in China’s military participation in international governance. We should recognize nonetheless that China has been a laggard in assuming military responsibilities in fighting terrorism. China has participated in many United Nations peacekeeping missions but it has had nearly no responsibility for military combat activities. In the fight against global terrorism, China has only been interested in “clearing away the snow in front of its own door”. During the Obama Administration, China was repeatedly criticized for being a “hitchhiker”. Perhaps the tangle of interests in the Middle East is too complicated but China also has wide interests in Africa and Africa also suffers from terrorism and the regional politics are relatively uncomplicated. China has great potential for providing anti-terror assistance in Africa. Moreover fighting terror internationally also helps China fight terror at home.

Some people say that China will pay a price whether it accepts refugees or takes part in world military governance. But there aren’t any leadership roles that can be won without paying a price. The rewards will be far greater than the price that China pays. No matter whether we are speaking at the rational level or on the emotional level, there is just no reason why China should keep itself aloof from these matters.

When Trump came to power, the United States gave China a rare and precious opportunity. There is only a brief window of a few years during which China can take advantage of this opportunity. Whether China can now succeed to the position of international leadership that Trump dropped will depend upon whether China is capable of meeting the challenges of leadership.

(Note: The author is an independent scholar. This article represents his personal views. Responsible editor:

More on Chinese refugee policy or lack thereof from a 2015 Chinese magazine article in the Netease (wangyi) magazine Re Guancha article “How do China, the United States, Germany and Other Countries Respond Treat Ethnic Chinese Refugees?  Straight Talk”  written by Luo Jialiang discussing intake of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam and some other SE Asian countries after the Vietnam war by the US, Europe and China.

According to the article, the Chinese government accepted 265,000 refugees from SE Asia between 1978 and 2005.  Ninety-nine percent were Vietnamese refugees.
The article mentions that during the North Korean famine of the late 1990s, many Koreans fled to China.  According to UN statistics, there as of 2003, between 150,000 and 300,000 North Korean refugees in China. The article adds that China does not recognize these people are refugees and so has disputes with the UN on that issue.  Possibly the Chinese government does not want to use the word refugee so as to avoid triggering some obligations.
The article mentions that some African students from some wartorn countries have been allowed to stay indefinitely but not given permanent residence. They are not allowed to work and so need to rely on some support from the UN.
At the end of the article,  a Chinese scholar Liang Shuying is quoted saying that China need to establish a law on refugees to create a system for handling refugee matters.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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