PARIS — When John Adams began to compose the opera Nixon in China in 1985, nearly 15 years had passed since the event that marked an important turning point in the history of the Cold War. But whatever the dollar figures involved in the trade deals signed this past week, or the urgency of China-U.S. talks regarding North Korea, it would require nothing less than the comical talent of Gioachino Rossini (who composed The Journey to Reims) to put Donald Trump’s Journey to Asia to music.
How things have changed between 1972 and 2017, especially in the balance of power between the United States and China, which was by far the most important stop of the American president’s just concluded trip to Asia. In 1972, China was playing in an altogether different league than the U.S. Though it was bogged down as the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia, Nixon’s America had just one rival, and one that was on its way to collapsing on itself.
While Washington was looking to isolate the USSR, Beijing was struggling to emerge from decades of isolation. What John Adams captured in his opera, and particularly with his four-part harmony between Nixon, Mao, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, was history with a capital H.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the balance between the two countries has been reversed. China has a long-term strategic vision, while the U.S. no longer has one. Should Washington’s goal be to unite Asian countries, particularly its democracies, to counterbalance China? Or should it instead cozy up to China in order to share with Beijing the burden of the world’s responsibilities?
Should it resign itself to entering a multipolar world?
Does “America First” imply a stiffening of its economic relationship with China, which, regardless of the deals triumphantly announced, can eventually lead to trade war — and from then on to full war? In other words, should the U.S. contain China as it once did with the USSR or, having distanced itself from multilateralism, should it resign itself to entering a multipolar world?
Partner, rival, adversary: It seems Washington is incapable of choosing among these different possibilities. The worst part is that Trump’s America even seems incapable of conceptualizing the options available. A. Wess Mitchell, the freshly appointed Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, was recently in Paris. He just wrote a book entitled The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire, but he would be at a loss trying the define his president’s “grand strategy,” beyond the will to sign lucrative but short-term trade deals and the attempt to get China to do more regarding the crisis with North Korea.
China, on the contrary, has a strategic vision which is not “China First,” though this form of nationalism naturally exists, but “China Number One.” It’s not content being just the biggest Asian power. That goal has already been achieved. It now wants to be the world's singular leader, to overtake the U.S. economically, militarily — there’s a still a long way to go on that front — but also, and perhaps most importantly, in terms of civilization and culture.
While America’s democracy is in a downward spiral, China no longer has any inferiority complex regarding the Western world. “Why should I learn from you?” it seems to be saying. “From now on, you must learn from me, economically and financially since 2007-2008, politically since 2017 and this new U.S. President took office.” A recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center has shown that in Canada, Australia and Germany, more people trust China than the U.S.
During his visit to China, President Trump would have been well inspired to visit the futuristic library, shaped like a giant eye, that recently opened in Tianjin. An architectural wonder, this library symbolizes the contradictory ambition of a country that’s scared of writers but nonetheless places books at the core of its cultural project, in a library that is striking in its outward transparency.
This library confirms the message China was already sending the world in 2005, at an exhibition organized by the Chinese government at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Dedicated to Chinese art from the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the main works at this exhibition consisted in a very big painting of a European Jesuit style that portrayed an endless line of foreign ambassadors, most of them Westerners, lining up to pay homage to the Chinese Emperor. The explicit message was crystal clear: “You used to pay homage to us. Prepare yourselves, you’ll soon have to do the same again.” Everything is happening as if that time had already come, much sooner than even the Chinese themselves had imagined.
Trump’s Asian tour, unlike Nixon’s visit to China, is not likely to make the history books. It nonetheless marks another step towards the U.S.’s involuntary and premature handover of power to China.
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