NEW YORK—Donald Trump has repeatedly refrained from calling out Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election in his favor, even when standing beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. But on Wednesday, he didn’t hesitate to condemn China for, as he put it, “attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election … against my administration.”
With Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sitting nearby during a U.S.-chaired session of the United Nations Security Council, the American president explained that the Chinese “do not want me or us to win, because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade, we are winning at every level. We don’t want them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.” Trump did not elaborate on his government’s findings regarding China’s alleged attempted interference. Wang seemed to literally shrug off Trump’s charges, asserting later in the session that China’s long-standing policy is to not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Trump reserved most of his ire for Iran during his opening statement, and even spoke warmly of his collaboration with Chinese President Xi Jinping in addressing North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. But the confrontation between Trump and Wang was in keeping with one of the deepest-running and most disruptive themes of this year’s UN General Assembly: the increasingly pitched rivalry between the world’s two superpowers.
A day earlier, in welcoming the world’s leaders to the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had warned of the hazards of shifting international power dynamics, citing the political scientist Graham Allison’s theory that war between China and the United States, as with other rising and ruling powers throughout history, is distinctly possible but not inevitable.
Raising alarms about the fragility of international cooperation and institutions, Guterres noted that the world of the early-20th century resembled the world of the early 21st: multiple powers vying for influence and lacking dominance. (In an interview with me prior to the General Assembly, Guterres specifically cited U.S. trade conflicts as the primary reason why America was being sapped of its “soft power.” Trade isn’t typically a focus of the UN secretary-general’s, but Guterres seemed to see swelling protectionism as a canary in the coal mine for the international system as a whole.)
In the early-20th century, “a balance of power was deemed sufficient to keep rivals in check,” Guterres observed on Tuesday. “It was not. Without strong multilateral frameworks for European-wide cooperation and problem-solving, the result was a grievous world war.”
Soon afterward, Trump took the stage and condemned the ideology of “globalism,” the global trading system, and China’s trade practices, defending the multibillion-dollar trade war he has launched against China as a vital means of protecting American interests. “The United States lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter of all steel jobs, and 60,000 factories after China joined the WTO,” Trump declared. “But those days are over. We will no longer tolerate such abuse. We will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.”
“I think a lot of people don’t understand exactly what’s at stake here,” Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, told Fox News ahead of Trump’s speech. “This is not just an economic issue. This is not just talking about tariffs and the terms of trade. This is a question of power. The intellectual-property theft that you mentioned has a major impact on China’s economic capacity, and, therefore, on its military capacity … I think all of this goes to what will be the major theme of the 21st century, which is how China and the United States get along.”
A few weeks earlier, during a visit to Washington, D.C., a Chinese scholar and former government official had told me something similar. The U.S. government seemed to be moving “away from 40 years of engagement with China,” the scholar noted with concern, and the urgent question is whether American leaders are “looking for a fight or a deal.” If the former, the scholar advised, there would be “no capitulation” from China. The U.S. government appears to want to “pull off the tablecloth,” not just shift things from one plate to another in terms of addressing trade imbalances, the scholar continued. The trade war had “poisoned” U.S.-China relations, “but some of the cooperation just can’t stop.”
The “trade system is crumbling, and that creates a broader sense of crisis,” the United Nations expert Richard Gowan recently observed on a podcast. And at the UN in particular, “I don’t think anyone is quite sure how you fix that. Because that isn’t something you just fix through doing some peacekeeping reform or fiddling with the UN development system. It’s very fundamental … The big story of the year has definitely been the rise of China in the UN system, which has been happening for decades but has massively accelerated … What we’re going to see over time is a huge amount of pressure on the UN as a promoter of human rights and liberal values, with Beijing arguing that the organization should be giving at least equal weight to its model of development and cooperation.”
The other big story of the year at the UN, of course, is Donald Trump, who has once again, in the words of Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, come to the General Assembly and played the role of the “America-First bull in the globalist china shop.” Or is it the globalist China shop?