DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters Breakingviews) - A Donald Trump-shaped void has enabled Xi Jinping to cosy up to Davos Man. Addressing the World Economic Forum for the first time, China’s president defended globalisation and cooperation. Such calls are two-a-penny at the annual talking shop for the global elite, but this was a strikingly international and inclusive vision for a Chinese leader. If the United States turns inward under its new president, Beijing could wield more clout in everything from climate change to regional security.
In some ways, Xi’s defence of the status quo is unsurprising. China has benefited hugely from joining an increasingly interconnected world, with trade helping hundreds of millions of its citizens lift themselves out of poverty. And the People’s Republic is polishing its globalist credentials. It is pushing trade pacts just as the United States moves to bury them, has set up a regional rival to the World Bank, and is pouring money into infrastructure in other Asian countries.
All that said, Xi is a deeply flawed champion of globalisation. For a start, China’s commitment to multilateralism and openness is at best selective. Witness Beijing’s rejection of a recent unfavourable international court ruling on the South China Sea. Or its ongoing efforts to tilt the playing field on the mainland against foreign companies. Or consider the increasing hostility towards foreign ideas, as seen in Xi’s strengthening of China’s “great firewall”.
China also lacks the expertise and resources of the United States and is still regarded warily by many Asian neighbours, even if chequebook diplomacy has helped turn heads in places such as Manila and Kuala Lumpur. Nor can it offer trading partners America’s huge end-market of wealthy consumers - a key attraction of the doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership. In the era of Trump and Brexit, its habit of negotiating with foreign elites behind closed doors may also be less effective.
China has long been reluctant to assume international leadership. Being a global policeman costs a lot in blood and treasure. Whether it really is willing and able to step up remains an open question. But if Trump’s administration is incapable of articulating a more inclusive vision for the world, the cheerleaders of globalisation will increasingly look east.