What a World Led by China Might Look Like

The Trump administration may be accelerating "Easternization," argues Gideon Rachman.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to the United States to meet Donald Trump for the first time. But according to Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, power is flowing in the opposite direction. Rachman is far from the first analyst to argue that China and other Asian nations are rising while the Western world declines, nor is he the first to cite the now-familiar statistics about China’s ballooning economy and unparalleled manufacturing might. His contribution is to help explain some of the most confounding developments of the day—from the Middle East’s descent into anarchy to the ascent of populist politicians in the West to the emergence of nostalgia as a political force—through his theory of the “Easternization” of international affairs.

“In the twenty-first century,” Rachman writes in his recent book on the concept, “rivalries among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over five hundred years from 1500 onward.”

Trump, in fact, was an early opponent of Easternization, though he used different language. The businessman first expressed some of the core themes of his 2016 campaign—that foolish free-trade deals and greedy allies were draining the United States of its greatness—in the late 1980s, when the Japanese economy was booming and, as the former Bush administration official Peter Feaver has noted, “the joke was that the Cold War was over, and Japan had won.” Today, Trump argues that China is winning—and that America’s losing streak must end.

Ahead of the Trump-Xi summit in Palm Beach, I spoke with Rachman about how he understands Trumpism, how the Trump administration might accelerate Easternization, and what a world dominated by China might actually look like. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Uri Friedman: You write that you see Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” as a promise to reverse the process of Easternization. What do you mean by “Easternization” and why do you view Trump’s agenda in that context?

Gideon Rachman: What I mean by Easternization is the shift of economic power to Asia and, with that, the shift of political power to the East. And I think that Trump and the many Americans who voted for him, and maybe even some who didn’t, are unsettled by that process. Certainly Trump doesn’t accept it in any way as natural or inevitable that America’s position as the dominant economic and political power would erode. There was definitely a backward-looking nostalgic element to the “Make America Great Again” slogan—[back to] the period when America was the dominant power, the dominant economy, when the world respected American power. Probably the peak of that was the 1950s.

Sometimes Trump explicitly links this to the rise of Asia, as when he says that China has been “raping” the United States. [White House Chief Strategist] Steve Bannon, who is acknowledged as the ideologue of the Trump agenda, gave an interesting interview just after the election where he rejected the idea that globalization, or as he calls it “globalism,” is a good thing. He said what [the globalists have] done is create the middle class in Asia and destroy the middle class in America. If you take that as your intellectual starting point, then that leads you to the [trade] protectionism that Trump is flirting with. He’s a reversal of the [Bill] Clinton and the [George W.] Bush views of the rise of China—that, although it presented challenges, basically it was a good thing, it would create economic opportunities for America, and it would bind the world together, reduce conflict. Trumpism, insofar as it’s a coherent ideology, is very much based on the premise that Americans made a big mistake encouraging the rise of Asia economically.

Friedman: Do you feel that, as power shifts east, nostalgia is becoming a political force in the Western world?

Rachman: Yeah. If I look at my own country, Britain, behind the arguments [in favor of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union], there was a very powerful nostalgia for a sense that, as one pro-Remain guy put it to me, “A lot of the Leave voters think we used to be a great country and now we’re just a member of a club with 28 countries. Luxembourg has a veto and we’re not going to accept that. We want to go back to the way it was.” And Britain, I think, has embarked on a rather perilous course of trying to do that. If you look at Russia—it’s not so much the West as Europe—[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s slogan could as well be “Make Russia Great Again.” What is Marine Le Pen about in France? It’s “Make France Great Again.” She, like Trump, sees globalism as a force that’s eroding the nation.

But I think it’s particularly difficult for America because it’s pretty obvious to most people in Britain and France, however much they may dislike what’s happened, that we’re not going back ever to the period where they were the dominant global power. I think a lot of Obama’s policies can be read as trying to adjust America as gently as possible to this new reality in ways that are as least damaging as possible for the United States and for the rest of the world. But even within his own mind, there’s a struggle going on; in Asia-Pacific, [the Obama administration] doesn’t say we’re going to accept that China is going to be the dominant power.

Friedman: You mention that you see developments like the Syrian Civil War as a symptom of Easternization. How so?

Rachman: The Middle East since the end of the First World War had been dominated by Western powers. [First] the French and the British. Then, after the Second World War, there’s Cold War rivalry: Russia has elements of influence in the Middle East but America is the dominant power, certainly after the Russians are kicked out of Egypt. There are blips—the Iranian Revolution and so on—but by the first part of the 2000s, all of the key powers have relationships with America: Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. Because of what’s happened in recent years [with the Arab Spring and the Iraq War], you suddenly have a sense that America no longer is in control of events in the Middle East. The Europeans, although they make a feeble effort to intervene in Libya, then walk away and leave a vacuum. And then the Russians move [into Syria]. More generally you just have an anarchic situation, with Chinese economic interests very much [at] the fore but the Chinese having no interest in playing a political role.

[Another] example would be Turkey. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, [Turkish President Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk comes [along] in the 1920s [and] sets Turkey on a course to the West: dress like Europeans, change your alphabet to look like Europeans’, create a secular state. Under [current Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, you’re seeing a Turkish leader saying, “We reject the West in many ways. We want to rediscover our Islamic roots. We want to discover the Ottoman hinterland. And we think that you that you [Westerners] are a sick society and that you’re no longer our model.

Even in Israel, [political leaders are] looking very much to economic opportunities in India and China, partly because they [feel] that the Indians and the Chinese [are] pragmatists who [won’t] put them under pressure on human rights or the West Bank. An aide to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu said to me, “We had a great meeting with the Chinese. Twelve hours and you know how long they spent on the Palestinians?” I said “no.” He said, “Twenty seconds. They’re not interested. What they’re interested in is business deals with us and that suits us.”

Friedman: You spend a lot of the book making the case that Easternization is occurring and describing what it looks like in different parts of the world. There’s less detail on what an Easternized world might actually look like. Can you paint me a picture of it?

Rachman: [The trend] I’m most confident of is [the] growing economic power of Asia. More of the world’s production will come there. More of the world’s trade will come there. China will, for at least 30 years, be easily the most important economic power in Asia.

Many of the countries that looked instinctively to America, both for their markets and for their political leadership, will begin to tilt more toward Beijing. The thing that causes a definitive break [in alliances] is war. The world order we’re living in was remade in 1945 [after World War II] and again after 1989, when the Cold War ends. But absent a dramatic event like a war or the fall of the Berlin Wall, you’re looking at a slower drift where you’ll be in a different place in 20 years’ time but it won’t be obvious that there was a particular event that marked [the shift].

You will have countries like South Korea, Japan to an extent, the whole of Southeast Asia, caring more about what is coming out of Beijing than what is coming out of Washington because that’s where their economic livelihoods [have] gone. That might stretch all the way to Europe, where China is now Germany’s largest trading partner. And so if you have Donald Trump, who is increasingly antagonistic toward Germany, but a booming trade relationship with China, maybe Germany, which throughout my life has been centered on NATO [and] on the EU, begins to think, “Whether or not NATO still continues to exist formally, our relationship with Beijing might be more important than our relationship with Washington in 10, 15 years’ time.”

Another country that’s very strongly in the Western orbit now but is under enormous pressure is Australia, where, as we speak, the Chinese prime minister’s been there and explicitly said, “We don’t want to see you Australians taking sides in the U.S.-Chinese dispute, as you did during the Cold War. Stay neutral.” That’s remarkable. Australians fought with the Americans in the Second World War, [fought] with them in Vietnam, and [Australia] is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement [with the United States]. But overwhelmingly [Australia’s] markets are [in] China now. Now the Australians [are] also very uneasy about the Australian property [and] companies that China’s buying up. But it’s not clear that in the long run they have much of an option but to adapt because the American market is much less important than the Chinese market, and there is a question mark over America’s staying power in the Pacific. Australia, kind of the definition of a country without problems, is really at the cutting edge of these questions about how we adapt to this new world.

Friedman: Do you see the architecture of free trade changing if China becomes more dominant?

Rachman: A lot of that will be dependent on what Trump does. Will Trump trash the [World Trade Organization]? Will he walk away from it if he doesn’t get what he wants? In that case, I think you might start moving toward a much more bilateralized world trading system where the global rules begin to erode and you have people trying to strike deals with individual markets—the Brits trying to strike a deal with America. But I think it also gets China moving quite smartly, as they’ve done in the wake of Trump pulling America out of the [Trans-Pacific Partnership], to create a China-centered free-trade area.

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, there was this famous moment where Xi Jinping comes and gives a speech at Davos. I was in the audience. The conventional thing to say afterwards was, “Isn’t it amazing: China’s now the defender of the globalized order that America has turned against.” But it’s not that surprising because China is the world’s biggest manufacturer. It’s the world’s biggest exporter. Of course it would defend the current system. I remember talking to an EU official afterward and he said, “When Britain was the dominant economy it was the promoter of free trade. When America was the dominant economy it was the promoter of free trade. Now China’s the promoter of free trade, and you can feel the wheels of history turning.”

Friedman: I’ve [seen] in reports by U.S. intelligence officials, a recent report by Brookings, a vision of a [future] world dominated more by China and Russia that is a “spheres of influence” world [for great powers]: China has control over its neighborhood, Russia has control over its neighborhood, the U.S. has more sway in its neighborhood. Do you think that is a likely result of this process of Easternization?

Rachman: I think that is one very plausible outcome. It’s certainly what the Russians want and it’s what the Chinese want. The question [was], up until now, would the Americans be prepared to cede that? Obama and [former U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry very much rhetorically were opposed to it and, I think, in reality were pretty opposed to it. There was a question about would they have the will to enforce their opposition. The question that begins with Trump is slightly different: Some of what [Trump has said] has implied that he might accept a “spheres of influence” concept—that Russia and maybe China in time, if they respected American commercial interests, would be given more of a free hand politically in their regions. But whether Trump could persuade the American establishment, or “deep state” as we now have to call it, to go along with that is a big question. Whether the vestigial alliances would drag him in anyway—the Japanese certainly wouldn’t accept it, the Poles wouldn’t accept it, and America has treaty commitments to these countries—[is an open question].

There’s an Australian academic I quote in the book called Hugh White who argues that in the long run [a spheres-of-influence model is] where it has to go in Asia—that [otherwise the U.S. and China] will end up with a war. In the end I rejected [that argument] because I think it’s too fatalistic and too deterministic. China is not a stable polity. I don’t think anybody would place bets on the Communist Party still being in charge in 50 years’ time. It seems like a mistake for the West to surrender preemptively. Nobody anticipated what happened in 1989 [with the fall of the Berlin Wall], and nobody can really be sure how things are going to pan out politically.

Friedman: To sum up: If the Easternization process continues, and we look out a decade or two, potentially you could see some traditional U.S. alliances gradually shifting toward China and away from the U.S. Free trade is still there, but the center of gravity is more in China than in the U.S. The international institutions [like the WTO and the United Nations] that we’ve known for decades will still be there. And China may have more influence in its neighborhood, or it may not. Is that a fair summary?

Rachman: Just the last two bits I’d qualify. The international institutions probably will still be there in the sense that they won’t have been formally abolished, but they might [be] hollowed out, whether that’s NATO or the WTO or even the UN. And some parallel structures will have been set up beside them, like the [China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an alternative to the World Bank], which may have more power than some of the older ones.

And the second thing is: I’m a bit less on the fence about Chinese power than that summary [suggests]. I think the likelihood is that we’re looking at a much more powerful China in 30 years’ time, but we don’t know what’s going to happen politically in China.

Friedman: Based on the evidence so far, do you think the process of Easternization is accelerating under Trump?

Rachman: Yeah. And I think that’s the precise opposite of what he intends. But [that is] the paradoxical result of an America that looks much less reliable. Allies don’t know whether they can trust him. Some allies, like Japan, who have absolutely no alternative to America, have rushed to embrace him. The Brits a little bit. But others—the Europeans, the Australians—are beginning to think, “OK, we’ve got to start hedging our bets.”

Second, to the extent that the isolationist, protectionist tendencies in Trump come to the fore, there’s a voluntary [U.S.] pullback, and that leaves a vacuum for China to move into. The abolition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the prime example of that.

Friedman: So you don’t buy the argument that [Trump] is scaling back American overextension [in the world] precisely to make America more powerful so that it can reverse this process of Easternization?

Rachman: I don’t ultimately buy it. If he’s focused on the core group of Trump voters—the guys who used to have a middle-class existence through manufacturing and don’t anymore—there may be some forms of Trump economic policies that give a temporary boost to them. Even there I’m pretty skeptical because I think protectionism doesn’t tend to work that well in the long run. And I think American workers won’t get the jobs if Chinese workers are displaced. It’ll probably be a robot. So I’m not sure he can reverse, even in that quite limited sphere, the effect of Easternization.