The Chinese Communist Party, on February 25, 2018, made a significant announcement — that the two-term limit for Presidency will be abolished through an amendment to the constitution. This means that current President Xi Jinping will be President for life. This amendment was tabled on March 6, 2018 by the Communist Party during the two week National People’s Congress (which began on Monday, March 5, 2018).
According to a CNN recording, Donald Trump, while reacting to this development, stated:
He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.
The US President also called Xi a “gentleman,” and said that the latter had treated Trump very well during his China visit in November 2017. Trump’s reaction to Xi’s decision has been criticized by some politicians in the US, while other major Western democracies have not commented on the decision.
Trump’s inconsistency on China
Trump’s views with regard to China have not been consistent, as is the case on many other issues. Candidate Trump had used tough language for China; at one campaign rally, for example, candidate Trump stated:
We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.
During his visit to China in November 2017, the US President had, interestingly enough, criticized his predecessors, and said that he does not hold China responsible for the skewed trade relationship:
[…] I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its own citizens? I give China great credit […] I do blame past [US] administrations for allowing this out of control trade deficit to take place and to grow. We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work […] it is just not sustainable.
While the US President is unpredictable, the criticism of his predecessors on foreign soil came as a shock to everyone.
Trump’s myopic approach towards complex economic and strategic issues has helped China
Trump’s recent praise of the constitutional change which will enable Xi to be President for life may have embarrassed many Americans and Liberals in other parts of the world. They would have perhaps expected the US President to raise a red flag.
The fact is, however, that many of Trump’s foreign policy decisions – withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January 2017, or repeatedly criticizing NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and stating that members are not meeting their ‘financial obligations’ or, more recently, the imposition of tariffs on imports of aluminium and steel – are embarrassing steadfast allies in Asia and Western Europe. All these decisions have sent a message globally that Trump’s view of the outside world is driven by domestic politics and transactionalism – and not realism as some would have us believe. This is in contrast to his predecessors, who valued relationships but also understood the relevance of common democratic values as a binding thread. Trump on the other hand is quite comfortable with authoritarian leaders.
Trump has often expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, and Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, who is controversial for using extrajudicial methods to deal with a Filipino drug problem, has presided over a drug war that has cost the lives of more than 4,000 people. While praising Duterte, Trump said:
I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing.
During their meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila (November 2017), Trump did not sufficiently raise US human rights concerns, and was criticized by many American politicians, including Republican Senator John McCain. The US-Philippines Joint Statement, while speaking about the challenge of the drug problem, did refer to a human rights issue (issued after the meeting between Trump and Duterte):
The two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs to promote the welfare of all sectors, including the
most vulnerable groups.
It would be pertinent to point out that the previous administration had criticized Duterte for adopting such measures. In return, Duterte used offensive language aimed at President Obama.
While the US has been in bed with authoritarian regimes in the past and turned a blind eye on many occasions to human rights violations, no one can deny the fact that even transactionalist Presidents like Ronald Reagan paid lip service to democracy and human rights. In a speech at Westminster, Reagan stated:
Democracy is not a fragile flower […] Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.
Similarly, George W Bush, who was often thought of as being very simplistic, spoke about the importance of democratic values as a common binding factor with many of its allies.
In conclusion, while reasonable ties between Washington and Beijing are good news, Trump’s public appreciation of authoritarian leaders and their methods is worrying because at the global level there is a feeling that authoritarian leaders and systems deliver better results compared to chaotic democracies.
The US has always been the flagbearer of democracy, liberal values, and human rights. It is a matter of concern, then, when the leader of such a country pays little attention to these issues. In a way, Trump has played a pivotal role in wrecking the liberal order, and by doing so has created a situation where Beijing will not have to change its ways, but may well create a parallel order which many countries will be willing to join due to China’s economic prowess.