A recent Gallup poll shows that worldwide approval of China’s global leadership role has surpassed the same rating for the US. The difference, while small, suggests a trend that the two great powers are heading in opposite directions in terms of global approval. China is moving up and the US down.

That the US’ approval rating is down can be directly attributed to President Trump’s ‘America first’ — and to hell with everybody else —approach. It’s no surprise that neighboring Canada and Mexico, which perhaps know the country best, show the biggest slides in approval of the US.

All other traditional allies of the US – namely western European and Latin American countries, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – also showed declines in US approval of more than 10%.

In fact, America’s global approval rating, now at 30%, has hit an all-time low, below even the strong disapproval evaluations endured by the George W. Bush regime. The same poll indicates that China has now risen behind Germany as the world’s second most-admired power.

It’s appropriate to compare the contrasting approaches of the US and China internationally as a way of understanding this trend and what it might presage for the future.

Trump has not expressed any vision for America or for the world, nor any policy or strategy going forward, other than to increase defense spending. He has said he will make America great again but he hasn’t said anything specific that the public can point to and say “aha, that’s how we are going to get to that greatness.”

President Xi of China, on the other hand, has carefully outlined his domestic and international agenda. Domestically, he wants to leave no one behind and lift those remaining below the poverty line above it. Trump doesn’t care about those living on less than the minimum wage; he just wants to send them back to whichever country they came from.

China has — at last — embarked on pollution abatement and remediation of past environmental damage. Its leadership not only believes in the science behind climate change but is actively taking steps to reverse greenhouses gas emissions.

For all the hostile views of American politician and pundits, China is simply not perceived as a threat elsewhere

To Trump, science is voodoo hocus-pocus and he won’t take any steps that he thinks might hurt the economy. (One might question whether Trump’s grasp of economics is any better than his grasp of science.) Thus he withdrew from the Paris Accord and by default China has taken over the mantle of leadership in combating climate change.

Internationally, Xi has focused on the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) as an important part of China’s diplomatic toolkit. Virtually any country interested in working with China can do so. China has financed and helped construct highways in Central Asia, new railroads in Africa, harbors in Africa, Asia and Europe. A number of projects are also undergoing feasibility studies in Latin America.

These programs are not handouts but come with financing provided by development banks, mostly via competitive bids (albeit China has won most of the projects).

Of course, not all of the completed projects have worked out satisfactorily. The best-known debacle is in Sri Lanka, where Colombo agreed to nearly US$15 billion in Chinese financing for the construction of large infrastructure projects such as a power plant, a new airport, improvements to an existing port, and a new port.

Unfortunately, the completed projects did not boost the economy to the projected level, meaning that government’s receipts could not service the debt incurred. The country development model used to finance Sri Lanka’s projects is the same as the one used by World Bank and Asian Development Bank. In this case, the model didn’t work.

Critics from the west have been quick to label the Sri Lanka experience an example of China exercising its “sharp” power. Since no military force is involved, new terms of belittlement have had to be coined to disparage China’s image.

Notwithstanding what happened in Sri Lanka, others are undaunted by China’s supposedly sharp elbows. Soon a ministerial meeting will take place between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a bloc comprising 33 countries, and China, to explore broader and deeper cooperation.  

Belt and Road Initiative. Illustration: iStock
Belt and Road Initiative. Illustration: iStock

National leaders of member states involved in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang just last week to discuss not only economic cooperation but also how China can provide increased training and scholarships to students from the other member states. In addition to China, the countries involved are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

At the same time, parliamentary leaders from seven Nordic and Baltic countries were calling on President Xi in Beijing, a first for these countries to pay such a visit as a group. They expressed admiration for what China has achieved, its technological innovations, and the potential to cooperate with China as part of the BRI.

Other than countries that see themselves as rivals to China – such as the US, Japan and possibly India – few nations have failed to express a desire to develop closer ties with China. For all the hostile views of American politician and pundits, China is simply not perceived as a threat elsewhere.

Recently, at a public forum at Stanford University, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was quoted as saying an American military presence around the world is necessary to combat terrorism. If that’s really the case, he should convince his boss in the White House to stop thinking about China as a possible adversary and think about recruiting it as a partner.

China is determined to make friends globally, one project at a time. Its infrastructure expertise could even help Trump in his bid to make America great

China shares a common interest with the US in counterterrorism and possess new weaponry to add to the fight. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), coupled with high-quality security cameras, have enabled China to identify fugitives, criminals and terrorists in real time.

The American military could use such systems in combat zones in the Middle East. The US could also use them to monitor passersby around embassies and scan passengers arriving through airport immigration — a much more practical alternative to enacting blanket bans on travelers from selected countries.

There are other developments where the US can profit by learning from China. To maintain its hold on manufacturing, China is developing and relying on robotics and automation. It is not trying to hold on to low-end manufacturing involving low-paid workers; instead, it is developing manufacturing for high-value products that can do without workers on the factory floor.

Somebody should be advising Trump that high-end and high-precision manufacturing is the future — not the labor-intensive, low-value processes he is trying to wrestle back to America.

As a matter of fact, there is so much to be gained from the two powers collaborating rather than resorting to pointless confrontation. Clearly, China is determined to make friends globally, one project at a time. Its infrastructure expertise could even help Trump in his bid to make America great.

China is not seeking to win at the expense of the US – and nor should the US look to do so at the expense of China. If both were to cooperate, tensions would ease and the US would likely see its global approval rising again like China’s.