Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 06, 2019
While America firmly takes steps to retreat into its own sphere of influence, it leaves the world with a sizable vacuum to fill. China is one of the countries intent on filling this vacuum.
American retrenchment and the Chinese advantage This is the 73rd article in the series The China Chronicles. Read all the articles here.
Through the course of the 2016 presidential election campaign and the election of Donald Trump, one theme was clearly put forth above all else “Make America Great Again!” In keeping with this ideal, the Trump administration backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement and placed a travel ban on people from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Somalia, which was later extended to North Korea. He also talked down to his allies at NATO, committing to withdrawing all US troops from Syria and prematurely declaring victory over ISIS. He placed the blame on the Obama administration for the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and used the most abusive language against people from Haiti and African countries. The Trump administration vision for America veers in the direction of isolationism, which has a long history.

Retrenchment — an old ideal given steam

Historically American foreign policy has moved between isolationism and strategic overextension. While the United States refused to join the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War, they did offer to rebuild a war-torn Europe, one of the most prominent being the Dawes Plan, which loaned Germany enough money to repay the allied powers. It was successful to the extent that it helped pay off a part Germany’s reparations, but its successor the Young Plan, which was to complete the final installment foundered due to the Great Depression. Washington’s role in founding the United Nations in 1945 and its subsequent interventions across the globe was a sign of an America determined to play more an active role in world affairs. Both George Bush Jr. and Barack Obama, Trump’s immediate predecessors sustained the American presence in the Asia-Pacific and the Obama administration introduced the “Pivot to Asia”. However, both Bush and Obama respectively pursued military intervention in Iraq and Libya, whose outcomes were far worse than the pivot and scathingly attacked by Trump. While past presidents oscillated between an activist foreign policy and limited engagement in a globalised and interconnected world, the Trump administration, has unilaterally decided to scale back American commitments, leaving the world to decide whether partnerships with the United States is worth sustaining. This quasi-vacuum created by the current American administration has left many wondering if another country will take America’s place as the leader and predominant force in global affairs.

While past presidents oscillated between an activist foreign policy and limited engagement in a globalised and interconnected world, the Trump administration, has unilaterally decided to scale back American commitments, leaving the world to decide whether partnerships with the United States is worth sustaining.


The withdrawal of America from the global stage is not something that is only happening on the economic or military front. Since this administration has decided to exit agreements and institutions, which the rest of the world readily wants to participate in, it shows the world that while America helped create the current world order, it is not interested in preserving it anymore. However, where America has started to scale back its commitments, China has emerged as a new economic power, reaching out internationally to show the world it is ready to make a change on an international scale.

A new leader in global politics?

The country, during the years of Deng Xiaoping and thereafter, saw near-double digit economic growth, resulting from economic reforms. This liberalisation of the economy saw China become an economic powerhouse, with both domestic and foreign entities making steady profits from their investments in Chinese development. With the ascendance of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the CPC, he stated the time for China to hide its strength was over and the time had come for the country to highlight its economic prosperity to the rest of the world. In keeping with this, Xi Jinping launched many massive infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia, all under the giant umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at creating trade routes connecting a host of countries with China at its center. This initiative, while extremely ambitious, has led countries into major debt-traps, a clear example being the signing over of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka after the country defaulted on its payments to the Chinese. This has raised concerns the world over regarding the ‘debt-trap’ style of diplomacy China is pursuing, ensuring strategic returns for investments they are sure the host country will not be able to repay.

Liberalisation of the economy saw China become an economic powerhouse, with both domestic and foreign entities making steady profits from their investments in Chinese development. With the ascendance of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the CPC, he stated the time for China to hide its strength was over and the time had come for the country to highlight its economic prosperity to the rest of the world.


However, with America backing out of international agreements and leaving its allies uncertain about the steadiness of the country as a partner, China has been making steady progress on the international front while at the same time ensuring it does not bend to any unnecessary demands from the US particularly under the current administration. Trump’s presidency and the decisions his administration have made have put China in an advantageous position and positioned Beijing as a viable alternative to American influence. Xi Jinping made this very clear at his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos in 2017. Calling out protectionist policies and the dangers of globalisation, Xi highlighted the fact that China would continue to reach out to the world and keep the spirit of globalisation alive. No case is more relevant to this statement than the recent trade war. While the Trump administration has slapped tariffs on the import of steel and aluminum on its trading partners, including Canada and Mexico, China has started reaching out to the rest of the world, positioning itself as a country with great import potential through the China International Import Expo in Shanghai. This event sends a simple message to the rest of the world that the Chinese economy, despite a slowdown, is on the unstoppable track of becoming an economic powerhouse. China has also been reaching out to the European Union in the midst of this trade war, trying to rope in the collective European market to balance the reduction in trade between itself and America. While it is highly unlikely that a new trade bloc will be formed to counter the US, it does display the lack of trust the EU presently harbors towards America exposing and deepening fissures in Trans-Atlantic relations and more generally in the Western alliance, which has not been witnessed since the Second World War.

Filling the vacuum

Thus, while America firmly takes steps to retreat into its own sphere of influence, it leaves the world with a sizable vacuum to fill. China is one of the countries intent on filling this vacuum through its global economic and strategic outreach. While China’s decades-long economic reforms have helped it reach out to the world on its own terms, the sudden spike in American protectionist policies has given Beijing some much needed room to further expand its influence and pose as a serious counter to American influence in the world. To what extent it succeeds in convincing the rest of the world of its ability to fill in the shoes America has left behind, remains to be seen.
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