When Xi Jinping visited Donald Trump this week at the U.S. president’s Florida estate for their first face-to-face meeting, many of the photos of the two leaders together conveyed a sense of awkwardness. After all, Trump represents a new generation of volatile, populist western leaders that Xi may still be learning how to engage. For his part, Trump is also learning that it’s a lot easier to insult the Chinese on the campaign trail than it is during a high-profile presidential summit.
While these two presidents come very different backgrounds and operate within distinctive political environments, they do share some important similarities in their respective foreign policy visions.
Trump, under the banner of “America First,” is quickly moving to reduce Washington’s international engagement through proposed trade restrictions, limits on immigration and cuts in foreign aid among other areas. The emerging ‘Trump Doctrine‘, if there ever is such a thing, is rooted in a classic zero-sum, realpolitik that says if one side wins, the other side loses. Gone are any of those lofty notions that America being a force for good in the fight for democracy, human rights and social development around the world.
According to Donald Trump’s worldview, international relations, be it with the Chinese or anyone else, boils down to a series of transactions where the overriding objective is to negotiate the best “deal” for the United States.
There’s no question that most senior Chinese officials would recoil in horror if their technocratic approach to policy making was compared to the Twitter-driven style of the new American president. Be that as it may, there are a growing number of areas where the Chinese and Americans have a surprisingly similar approach in how they manage their international relations.
Gone are the days when China fomented revolution in Africa or nominated itself as the great third world power who stood up to the Americans and Soviets. Today, there’s hardly a whiff of that kind of ideology in China’s foreign policy, instead, the Chinese worldview is intensely pragmatic guided by the primary objective of advancing Beijing’s interests.
This pragmatism allows Chinese policy to be free of the complications that often accompany value-driven agendas. This kind of “valueless” foreign policy strategy is focused on opening new markets for Chinese exports, securing sources of raw materials and strengthening the country’s position in Asia vis a vis territorial disputes.
Sure, Xi Jinping may be talking up the benefits of global trade and international cooperation on climate change, but a number of leading China experts including Francois Godement of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris, argue that it is unlikely these new positions represent any substantive change in Chinese policy. Instead, they contend, it is extremely unlikely the Chinese will want to take on the burdens and obligations of global leadership on security, environmental or even trade issues that don’t directly serve their narrow interests.
Transactional vs. Pragmatic
So while the foreign policies of these two countries are framed in very different ways, “transactional” vs. “pragmatic,” they’re both similarly “valueless” in the sense that they’re not driven by an over-arching ideology other than to advance their own country’s agenda.
Francois joins Eric & Cobus to talk about China’s “valueless” foreign policy agenda and how Beijing is adapting its international agenda to the new realities of the Donald Trump era.
- European Council on Foreign Relations: Expanded ambitions, shrinking achievements: How China sees the global order by Francois Godement
- The Economist: Donald Trump’s first meeting with Xi Jinping was all about business by Lexington
About Francois Godement:
François Godement is the director of ECFR’s Asia & China programme and a senior policy fellow at ECFR.
He is a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, as well as a research associate at Asia Centre, which he founded in 2005. He is a non-resident senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and an outside consultant for the Policy Planning Staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A long-time professor at France’s National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations, he created Asia Centre IFRI at the Paris-based Institut Français des Relations Internationales (1985-2005). In 2005 he founded Asia Centre as an independent centre for research on Asian issues as they intersect global debates. He is a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm (Paris), where he majored in history, and he was a postgraduate student at Harvard University.
In 1995 he co-founded the European committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), which he co-chaired until 2008. He has also been a member of the advisory board for the Europe China Academic Network (ECAN).
He is the editor of China Analysis, a quarterly analytical survey of Chinese news and debate published by Asia Centre and ECFR. His recent publications include Que veut la Chine? De Mao au capitalisme (2012), “China on Asia’s mind” (2014), and “France’s ‘pivot’ to Asia” (2014). He is a frequent contributor to media and academic debates on Asia and China.