Opinion Piece by Vice Provost Ariel Armony Published in La Nación

Vice Provost of Global Affairs and Director of the University Center for International Studies Ariel Armony wrote the following op-ed in the aftermath of the highly publicized meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recent G20 summit. Originally published in Spanish by Argentinian newspaper La Nación, the following is an English translation.

A “Cold Fight” Defines the Future of an Uncertain Relationship

Ariel C. Armony, Vice Provost for Global Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

December 2, 2018

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA--The meeting between President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires was anticipated by the global press—and especially North American media—with big expectations. The buildup gave the impression of waiting for a historic “Buenos Aires Summit” that would mark the beginning of a new cold war—or prevent it. Even after the meeting, the future of the relationship between the two superpowers is uncertain.  

The excessive emphasis on the results of the meeting between the two leaders—their first face-to-face in more than a year—overshadowed a fundamental aspect of the conclave: Trump came into it in a position of weakness. Specifically, three factors limited his ability to negotiate. 

First was the United States’ decision to negotiate with China on its own. The United States damaged its own interests by not advancing its trade agenda with its allies, especially the European Union, that would have permitted it to go further than the current commercial dispute defined by tariffs and counter-tariffs. We must not forget that just three days after becoming president, Trump gave China a gift by leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

The TPP, which did not include China, included 40 percent of the world economy and established conditions to create an economic superblock that would have affirmed North American leadership in Asia and the Pacific. In his first month in office, Trump closed the United States off from the world, creating a leadership vacancy that China, with pleasure, jumped into. 

Second, the Trump Administration has not succeeded in defining a coherent approach toward China. While experts debate whether Obama’s policy of dialogue and compromise had been a failure or not, they strongly agree that a new strategy is necessary. 

The Trump Administration is divided between those who want a diplomatic approach of compromise and those who want to apply pressure on China. Both positions have their risks, but regardless of the approach, this period of indecision has hurt the United States’ ability to negotiate. 

Transformation

Finally, we are living in a moment of fundamental transformation of the world order, marked by a regression of democratic values. In this context, the loss of the United States’ outward-facing legitimacy is important. Beyond the serious problems facing U.S. democracy, the North American superpower represents an alternative political model to the autocracy of the People’s Republic of China. Changes in perception toward the two countries on the world stage are worrying. 

Public opinion surveys show international anxiety regarding the role of the United States on global issues and the consensus of China as a much more important global figure than it was a decade ago. A majority of people in the world believe that the U.S. government does not have the interests of other countries in mind when it makes political decisions. More than 50 percent of Europeans believe that the United States does not respect individual rights, substantially more than just five years ago. 

Although a global majority still prefers the United States as a global leader, a higher percentage express more confidence in Xi Jinping than in Trump. 

This positive perception of China is particularly strong in Africa, the Middle East and parts of the Asian continent. In Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, public opinion shows more confidence in the Chinese government than in the United States. Six years ago, only Argentina held this view. 

Perhaps, as Li Xue of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, these are not the conditions of a new cold war. In his opinion, the United States and China are embroiled in a “cold fight” in that the two powers are competing to establish a new equilibrium. We will see if the United States finds the necessary ability to balance its inconsistent position.