A tour of the Forbidden City, dinner in the Great Hall of the People, a review of the People’s Liberation Army: Exactly as expected, the Chinese leadership slathered on the gold-leafed pomp with trowels when President Trump arrived in Beijing this week. As Jane Perlez put it in Tuesday’s New York Times, “They know just how to handle an outspoken tycoon with a big ego.” Translation: Xi Jinping, with galvanic plans to connect and develop the Eurasian continent in pursuit of a new and peaceable world order, understood he had to entertain a powerful man whose nation has no useful reply to such matters.
This is an historically significant moment between China and the United States, one that has been coming the world’s way for some years. President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, announced four years ago and celebrated by many world leaders in Beijing this past spring, is destined to be a (if not the) defining project of the 21st century. Beijing’s steadily waxing alliance with Moscow stands to make Russia an essential bridge between East Asia and Europe as well as Beijing’s primary partner. Next to this, Trump proffers it is hard to say what. Certainly not a vision, other than the maintenance of American hegemony. If the United States has a policy across the Pacific now—and this is a question—it amounts to keeping the region divided against itself while maintaining an ever heavier military footprint in an effort to hold on to a fading influence.
There is the builder and the regime-changer cum spoiler, the nation that proposes a global order based on widely shared prosperity and the nation that depends on perpetual conflict to justify itself. I do not think this is a reductionist thought. If I wore a little Stars and Stripes on my lapel I would have found this week’s two-man play in Beijing embarrassing. With no taste for boastful patriotism, I found it merely fascinating. If history were a rail yard, we would now be watching one train pull into the station and another that forces itself onto the siding because its engineers cannot imagine sharing the tracks.
Press coverage of Xi’s Belt and Road festivities this past May was especially pitiful even by the low standards of our media, you may recall. Belt and Road is best described as a multi-year vision, a plan to join Asia and Europe by way of a vast assortment of infrastructure and industrial projects. The ambition and insight evident in it are far-sighted and, to me, admirable. One way or another, however, we are not to take Belt and Road seriously: It is extravagant and will never work, it is self-serving, it will spread corruption, it will leave beneficiary nations in debt to Chinese banks. Here is the column I wrote at the time. I take it perfectly seriously.
I note the disgracefully spiteful press coverage because it was neither more nor less than a faithful reflection, as the clerks in our media are paid to produce, of the thinking (or the avoidance thereof) in Washington. It is the same mistake Barack Obama made in dismissing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank when Xi launched it three years ago, only to watch as the world flocked to join. The AIIB is, indeed, one of Belt and Road’s foundational financing institutions, as its name implies. Washington never learns, of course, because it does not want to. Bringing up the rear, it is still negotiating membership in the AIIB, even as it repeats the error by pretending Belt and Road is not worth its time.