Strategies for Xi and Trump
Osnos (2018) stated, “As Donald Trump surrenders America’s global commitments, Xi Jinping is learning to pick up the pieces.” Even though Xi and Trump are so opposite when it comes to decisions on soft power, both Xi and Trump’s bipolar soft power policies are due to different reasons but they have similar interests.
Xi removed the presidential term limit in 2018, which shows his interest in keeping his position for a longer time. If we assume this was his interest back in 2013 when he first became the president of China, we can figure out why he brought up the Belt and Road Initiative in the same year. To remove the term limits, Xi first needs to get support from the party. He needs to show the party that he is capable and competent in leading China to go through difficulties to better develop. There are two factors that are important in China’s development: economy and influence.
A strong economy has always been an evaluation to check if a country’s leader is doing a good job. China has been praised for its rapid economic growth, but there are a lot of saying that this rapid growth cannot last any longer and will reach its limit soon. Let’s say if Xi really did continue his term till 2030 but the economic growth stops, he will definitely receive resistance from the party if he wants to continue his term.
Moreover, China has been wanting to influence and participate more in world affairs. But China has a bad reputation for its authoritarian political system and its policies. A lot of its policies and plans often get criticized by the western democratic countries which dominate the global voice. It’s hard for China to get into the center stage of the world without any allies only enemies.
Belt and Road Intiative
For the economy and influence these two reasons, Xi chose increasing investment in soft power to achieve his goal. One of the biggest investments in soft power is the Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI can deal with the economy and influence problems at once. Economically, BRI can create a bigger market for China to do business with when China’s economic growth reaches its limit. In today’s world economy between countries are intertwined. Xi is looking for a way to be less dependent on just a couple of countries economically. During the trade war with America, China’s economy was damaged. If China had dispersed its business with countries involved in BRI, a trade war with one country would hurt less. There are other benefits according to ChinaPower:
The BRI has the potential to yield considerable economic and political gains for China. Many of these have been explicitly acknowledged in China’s official policy communiques, such as the expansion of China’s export markets, the promotion of the Renminbi (RMB) as an international currency, and the reduction of trade frictions like tariffs and transport costs.
Additionally, developing and connecting hard infrastructure with neighboring countries will help reduce transport times and costs. Establishing soft infrastructure with partner countries will allow for a broader range of goods to be traded with fewer regulatory hurdles. Raising capital for these infrastructure projects by issuing bonds in RMB will also encourage its use in international financial centers. In particular, China’s lower-income western provinces stand to gain, as the creation of overland economic connectivity with Central Asia will boost growth there. (How China stands to gain from the Belt and Road Initiative)
Influentially, most countries involved in this project are non-democratic and underdeveloped countries. They are a good choice for China to exercise its influence. China will have more allies in global affairs to back it up when democratic countries try to strike it down. Even though these countries usually don’t have a voice globally. China could be the voice for these countries and say what China wants to say. Collectively, they will make a voice that cannot be ignored. Moreover, China also invests in cultural soft power for example media, Chinese institutes, panda, exchange students, and such. According to Xi, he wants to “tell good Chinese narratives.” China has a very different political system from the west. China is an authoritarian country while western countries that play an important role in the world are democratic. China’s rise as an authoritarian country is an unknown, unprecedented and frightening threat that challenges the current world order. The world is fearful of upcoming new change that is totally different from the current situation. That’s why Xi wants to instill Chinese cultural values to tell the world that China is not a threat, and China grows peacefully. He wants to change China’s negative image to a positive image and to have more advocates tell China’s good sides not only bad sides. This is important if Xi wants China to gain more influence. When there are too many enemies, you can hardly walk a step.
Former President Trump shares the same interest as Xi, he wants to keep his position longer. But Trump has to use the opposite strategy for different reasons. In 2016, Trump won the election with a totally different and surprising strategy. He seized the unsatisfied needs and spoke the unspoken voices of a large group of people. They had never been the mainstream on social media which is why they are neglected by most presidential candidates, but Trump saw them. Most of these people share one important characteristic: They are conservative nationalists that believe in America and American first. Based on the information from the internet, a lot of the big donors of Trump’s campaign come from the same group too. If Trump wants to get re-elected for the second term, he needs to satisfy the voters and the donors. Trump can achieve this goal by decreasing spending on soft power. There are two reasons why this works. First, Trump withdrawing the U.S. from global events such as the Paris Agreement, and cutting spending on foreign assistance can be seen as a gesture that he puts America and American first, which satisfies the voters and donors. Second, withdrawing from global affairs can also be seen as a threat to influence the affected countries or organizations, which Trump hopes to gain more interest from participating in those events and it satisfies the “America First” norm.
Xi and Trump’s similar interest in holding their positions longer make them both utilize soft power to achieve their goals. But for different reasons their decisions on soft power go opposite directions. Xi increases investment in soft power in a way to increase economy and influence. Trump decreases investment in soft power to show the “America First” gestures to the voters, and uses it as a threat to influence organizations and countries to gain more interests.
Evan Osnos (2018, Jan 1). Making China Great Again. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/08/making-china-great-again
China Power Team. "How Will the Belt and Road Initiative Advance China’s Interests?" China Power. May 8, 2017. Updated August 26, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://chinapower.csis.org/china-belt-and-road-initiative/