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Uncertainty over US-China relations under President Trump may be made clearer at Davos

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reuters/Mariana Bazo

In a week when a Chinese slow burn over a phone call between president Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen foreshadowed a difficult relationship between Washington and Beijing, China quietly let it be known President Xi Jinping will attend this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

On the face of it. this might be regarded as unexceptional. After all, world leaders are drawn annually to the world’s premier networking opportunity, but the fact this will be the first occasion on which a Chinese leader attends the Davos event invests it with more than usual significance at a moment of great uncertainty in global affairs.

Xi may well have gone to Davos in any case given his raised profile internationally and China’s clearly defined intentions to expand its global soft power reach, but his presence in the Swiss mountain resort can – and should – be regarded as a statement of intent.

It is interesting to note that Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao stayed away from Davos, preferring to show up instead at the Russian equivalent, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Moscow bills this event as its rival to Davos.

So, what should be read into Xi’s initiative that will neatly coincide with the last days of a Barack Obama administration and anticipation of a Trump presidency?

Inauguration day is January 20. Davos will run from January 17-20, during which the unpredictable policy impulses of a Trump administration are certain to dominate WEF concerns.

Organisers will be congratulating themselves on the timing of this year’s event. They had no doubt anticipated it would be built round a theme of business-as-usual if, as expected, Hillary Clinton had prevailed.

Now, the world is bracing itself for an administration in which business will be anything but usual on the evidence of Trump’s early initiatives, including a provocative (as far as Beijing is concerned) phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Madam Tsai.

The fact that this exchange was brokered by a Washington law firm that has former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole on its masthead will not have allayed Chinese concerns.

If China’s state-controlled media is a gauge of official displeasure over the Taiwan phone call, then a simmering reaction risks coming to the boil.

An editorial in the Global Times – Beijing’s official mouthpiece which serves as a sounding board for views at senior levels of the Chinese leadership – railed against Trump’s “provocations’’, including a tweet in which the president doubled down on his criticism of China’s response to his direct contact with a Taiwanese leader.

"Trump’s China-bashing tweet is just a cover for his real intent, which is to treat China as a fat lamb and cut a piece of meat off it,” Global Times said.

The newspaper described Trump’s intervention as a “tantrum’’ and said it was it was "inevitable that Sino-US ties will witness more troubles in his early time in the White House.’’

The sanguine view of all this is that Trump’s bombastic pronouncements, many of them via Twitter, will give way in office to a more measured approach, and likely they will. But on the evidence so far we are in for a bumpy ride.

China’s leaders have, as Henry Kissinger noted this week, reacted calmly on the face of it to Trump’s provocations, leaving aside commentary in the official media. But it would be reasonable to assume a lot of contingency planning is taking place behind the vermilion walls of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing.

Pragmatic Chinese leaders and their advisers will be assessing how to manage the risks of an uncertain, increasingly volatile international environment.

These uncertainties would be factored into a Chinese leader’s travel plans, including attendance at the Davos summit in the heart of a Europe that finds itself whipsawed between nationalist forces that are threatening to tear apart a post-second world war construct.

Political developments in America could hardly be less helpful to a Europe trying to come to terms with the enormous challenges it faces, including slow growth, rising unemployment and dislocation caused by a flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Europe has scarcely been more fractured and fractious since the end of the second world war.

Former German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer captured this angst in an opinion piece for the Project Syndicate this week headlined ‘Goodbye to the West.’’

Fischer’s scenario might be regarded as alarmist, but he comes from the country that, more than any others is striving to preserve the European experiment, so his views are worth noting. This is especially so given his experience in a Coalition government from 1998-2005. He writes:

"Now that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, the end of what was heretofore termed the ‘West’ has become all but certain. That term described a transatlantic world that emerged from the twentieth century’s two world wars, redefined the international order during the four decade Cold War, and dominated the globe – until now.

He concludes:

We should not harbour any illusions: Europe is far too weak and divided to stand in for the US strategically, and without US leadership the West cannot survive. Thus the Western world, as virtually everyone alive today has known it will almost certainly perish before our eyes.

So what comes next? China, we can be certain, is preparing to fill America’s shoes. And in Europe, the crypts of nationalism have been opened; in time, they will, once again release their demons upon the continent – and the world.

Leaving aside whether Fischer’s bleak view of the world has validity or not, he is correct in one respect: China will seek to take advantage of opportunities arising from shifts in the way in which America deals with the rest of the world.

Will a Trump administration continue a hedging strategy, underwritten by succeeding USA administrations, Republican and Democrat, to manage China’s rise by providing a counterweight to its ambitions in the Asia-Pacific?

Or will a new administration seek a "grand bargain” with Beijing in which the US acknowledges China’s increasing role in international institutions and recognises its prerogatives in its own sphere of influence as long as it does not seek to overturn the status quo in Asia.

In the South China Morning Post last week, James Woolsey, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency under George W. Bush, and an adviser to Trump had this to say in remarks that suggest a change of thinking may be on the way:

Our ideological differences should … be better managed. America’s commitment to the spread of freedom is unwavering. Yet, as we improve our understanding of the complexities of the Chinese social and political system, it becomes increasingly apparent that challenging

The current system is a risky endeavor. We may not like it but we don’t necessarily have to do something about it. I can therefore see the emergence of a grand bargain in which the United States accepts China’s political and social structure and commits not to disrupt it in any way in exchange for China’s commitment not to the challenge the status quo in Asia. It may not be a spoken agreement but a tacit understanding that guides relations in the years to come.

That may be all very well in theory, but Beijing is already challenging the status quo in Asia in many different ways, and most particularly by its actions in the South China Sea where it has been militarising disputed reefs and atolls.

In Davos, not least of the questions on people’s minds as they contemplate a new and uncertain presidential era in the United States will be to what extent China plans to use such an opportunity to assert itself globally more or less across the board.

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