James Ferguson illustration of Gideon Rachman column ‘America’s disarray is China’s opportunity’
© James Ferguson

On January 20 1961, John F Kennedy, America’s youngest ever elected president, gave his inaugural address from the steps of the Capitol. Exactly 60 years later Joe Biden, America’s oldest ever president, will be sworn in at the same place — just days after it was stormed by a riotous mob.

Kennedy used the magisterial backdrop of Congress to proclaim that the “torch has passed to a new generation”. Mr Biden is the representative of an older generation — one that now fears the torch of liberty is in danger of being extinguished, even in the US itself.

Watching Kennedy’s address again, it is striking how much of it was addressed not to the American people, but to the leaders of the Soviet Union. JFK was speaking at the height of the cold war. Much of the American elite now believes that the US is on the brink of a second cold war — this time with China. But, unlike Kennedy, Mr Biden cannot promise to “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure the “survival and success of liberty” around the world.

The president-elect and his advisers know that their most important task is to ensure the survival and success of liberty in the US itself. The country is reeling from the twin impact of a pandemic and the Trump presidency — as well as a generation’s worth of festering social and economic problems.

America’s disarray is China’s opportunity. As part of a planned pushback against China, Mr Biden had planned to call a summit of the world’s democracies. But, after an attempted coup d’état by a sitting president, America may lack the credibility to act as convener of the free world. Mr Biden’s democracy summit is likely to be quietly shelved in favour of a D10 meeting of 10 democracies, brought together by the UK.

A large part of America’s emerging struggle with China will be a battle for economic influence around the world. When 2019 ended, 128 of 190 countries in the world already traded more with China than with the US. China’s centrality to the global trading system will increase this year — with the World Bank projecting the Chinese economy to grow at around 8 per cent compared to 3.5 per cent for the US.

The Americans are also in a struggle with China to shape the technical standards and regulations that govern the world economy. The US needs new tools that go beyond the coercive power of sanctions.

But the Biden team, alarmed by the rise of populism and protectionism within the country, have made it clear that America is unlikely to sign any new trade deals for a while — which will make it harder to expand US influence.

China, by contrast, has recently signed two major new trade deals. The EU-China investment deal was agreed in December. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a free-trade deal between 15 Asian nations, including Japan and South Korea — was agreed in November.

The battle for influence and prestige — or soft power — is also likely to be reshaped by the recent scenes in Washington. On the night of the storming of the Capitol, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the epitome of the American establishment, tweeted despairingly that: “No one in the world is likely to see, respect, fear, or depend on us in the same way again. If the post-American era has a start date, it is almost certainly today.”

China’s own prestige and popularity have also suffered badly over the past year, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and its aggression towards countries such as India and Australia. Last week, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported that the past year has been “the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement”. The report highlighted the crackdown in Hong Kong, internment camps in Xinjiang and increased repression of dissidents, in the wake of the pandemic.

But while China may not be much loved overseas, it looks relatively confident and stable compared with the US — an image that will be carefully burnished by this year’s celebrations to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist party.

The contrast between the current states of China and America brings to mind Osama bin Laden’s sinister aphorism: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”

Many political liberals, horrified by the rise of an authoritarian superpower, argue that the Chinese horse is actually much weaker than it appears. That may prove to be true. But there is also an element of wishful thinking in that view. A dispassionate assessment of world affairs, as it stands, cannot avoid the conclusion that the US is currently in deep trouble — and China is well placed to take advantage of that.

It is not just in China that the principles of political liberty, so stirringly championed by Kennedy, are under assault. This weekend’s arrest of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, on his return to Moscow — illustrates the sense of impunity felt by President Vladimir Putin in Russia.

President Donald Trump has been notably reluctant to speak out against human-rights abuses by Mr Putin and others. Mr Biden will not be so reticent. But his voice is unlikely to carry the strength and conviction of John F Kennedy’s clarion call of 60 years ago.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Letter in response to this column

An optimistic take on ‘America’s decline’ / From Robert H Wade, Professor of Global Political Economy, London School of Economics, London WC2, UK

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