Does China interfere in New Zealand politics?

| USA vs. China: international politics as a zero-sum game?

Even after almost six months in office, a coherent foreign policy strategy under President Donald Trump is not discernible. This also and primarily applies to the USA's policy on China. In the presidential election campaign, Trump criticized China above all with regard to its economic policy: because China manipulates its currency, breaks trade rules and undermines labor and environmental standards, it is destroying jobs in the USA. In one of his speeches he said: “We cannot allow China to rape our country, because that's what they do!” (Quoted from Diamond 2016; trans. J.T.). And in December 2016 - that is, before he took office - Trump declared after a phone call from Taiwanese President Cài Yīngwén that he saw the “one-China policy” [1] as a bargaining chip for renegotiating economic relations with China (Gray / Navarro 2016).

The current US president has already moved away from this position. After he had demonized China in general during the election campaign, he spoke of a "great meeting" after his meeting with Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng.

Since then, Trump's foreign policy rhetoric has fluctuated between interventionism and isolationism, irritating allies and rivals alike with erratic statements and causing general uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region with his unpredictability. In view of the multiple lines of conflict running there, this can potentially contribute dangerously to the escalation on site.

Now it is possible to identify the basic lines of the “America-first strategy” in foreign policy, such as economic nationalism, the greatest possible security and isolation of US territory, military strength and “amoral transactionalism” [2] in relations with other countries. However, it is still completely open how all of this can be translated into a US policy on China.

And so experts all over the world speculate about whether and to what extent the current US president will initiate a departure from Barack Obama's Asian policy of recent years. But although Trump's awkward and provocative remarks towards China and his simple zero-sum thinking in international relations differ markedly from Obama's international appearances, the substance of his demands lies far less outside the mainstream of American debates than some European observers think or hope to believe. Trump's geostrategic orientation for the Asia-Pacific region is at best a shrill, exaggerated and populist caricature of what has been discussed for a long time in strategic security circles and conservative think tanks in the United States and what, to a large extent, the foreign policy of the United States under Obama and his Foreign Minister Hillary Clinton was. The line has stayed.

In order to classify the new government's China policy, it therefore seems necessary to contextualize Trump and his foreign policy ideas in two senses: On the one hand, his foreign policy positions must be viewed in the context of US geopolitical discourses on China in recent years. On the other hand, the "Trump phenomenon" itself and the fact that he was able to win the presidency as a populist outsider must be taken into account in the context of the crisis in the US political system.

Different ideas about security policy

The US and China have very different ideas about the means by which prosperity and security can be created both in the Asia-Pacific region and globally. In the Asia-Pacific region, the USA has had an undisputed dominant position for 70 years and, like the defense alliances it established with Japan, South Korea and Australia after the Second World War, regard it as indispensable for its supremacy in the region and in the world. Specifically, US dominance means that the US can exercise its maritime power up to the 12 nautical mile limit of any nation, including China, in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, China has never accepted this situation. The Chinese government is convinced that there must be a balance of power in the region, which on the one hand also takes into account Chinese security needs and on the other hand promotes the economic development of China and the region as a whole. From the Chinese point of view, it could not be the case that the USA loudly guaranteed security for its allies, but that legitimate security interests of the countries outside of its alliance were not taken into account. Seen in this way, the USA is not a neutral mediator, arbitrator or impartial authority, as it often presents its role in the Pacific region itself. In fact, they are an interest-led party in Asia that is more likely to create additional tension than contribute to stability. The Chinese demand has always been that Asia needed a comprehensive security architecture that is based on the security interests of all countries equally.

The US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and the Chinese criticism of it are not a new phenomenon. However, the two countries have never come into serious conflict with one another in this regard. Above all, because China had neither the political, economic and military capacities nor the motivation to seriously challenge US domination on its doorstep for a long time.

However, the situation has changed fundamentally in recent years. China has risen to become the world's largest economy in a historically uniquely short period of time. Embedded in this as well as driven by neoliberal globalization, China today has more resources and more interests abroad and is increasingly self-confidently claiming to use these resources to assert its own interests.

Since the beginning of its global economic rise, China has relied entirely on a non-military foreign policy and pronounced foreign trade diplomacy. China's course is reflected in a mixture of its own initiatives (establishment of new international or regional institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or the “One Belt, One Road” initiative) and greater design demands in existing forums (such as the G20). If the Chinese government had held back on foreign policy in the past, it is now less and less willing to accept US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. It is increasingly demanding that the US-led regional and global order be fundamentally transformed, because it is convinced that this US dominance does not guarantee long-term security for China and the region.

USA and China: a nervous and a rising superpower?

The rise of China triggered a foreign policy discussion in the United States as early as the 1990s, which was conducted mainly in strategic security circles and think tanks, but also repeatedly spilled over into the wider public: It is about the inevitable conflict between the dominant and the emerging Makes. This debate is based on the argument that the US, as the dominant power, must defend itself against the rise of China, while China must assert itself as a rising power. This debate is based on theoretically very vague as well as historically questionable basic assumptions about what great powers should or should not do. So there is no reason to assume that great powers - emerging as well as status quo powers - have to strive for "hard power dominance" at all costs. And especially for China, history does not provide any basis for this type of argument. Nevertheless, this conception of competing powers forms an essential basis for US foreign policy strategies.

Over the years, the debate in the USA about “emerging and dominant powers” ​​has always had overlapping variants: a conservative-military variant that limits China through the expansion of its military presence and military alliances with old and, above all, new partners in the country The region sought to manage, a liberal-economic variant that tried to push back China's increasing influence through trade agreements, and a “populist” variant.

The populist variant, which was mainly advocated by conservative think tanks and opinion media such as Fox News or the Breitbart News Network, was a crude, often contradicting mixture of the conservative-military and the liberal-economic variant. Its representatives regard every political, economic or other success of China as a sign of weakness and the approaching decline of the USA. This variant had no clear foreign policy strategy and was primarily motivated by domestic policy: The Obama administration was unable or unwilling to defend the vital interests of the United States. China offered a welcome screen for polemical attacks against liberal America, which is morally decadent, politically weak and economically overregulated and therefore has nothing to counter the rise of China. This populist variant, which has always been an undertone in the strategic China debates, has now been washed to the surface with Trump. Domestically, your argumentative thrust is still directed towards a highly polarized electorate.

"Pivot to Asia"

Although far more differentiated and strategically mature, President Barack Obama's Asian policy was also based essentially on the concept of the rising and dominant great power. In 2012, Obama put his foreign policy under the label “Pivot to Asia” and later spoke of “rebalancing”. The aim of this foreign policy rebalancing was to ensure that the US remained the dominant power in Asia and that China's further rise should take place within a framework determined by Washington, not Beijing. During a state visit to Australia in 2014, Obama said: "American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy" (White House Office of the Press Secretary 2015).

The realignment integrated both conservative-military and liberal-economic approaches and translated them into concrete measures to contain China. The presence of the US Navy in the Pacific was strengthened, 2,800 US Marines were stationed in Darwin, Australia, and the expansion of existing alliances and some new military agreements were promoted. “The United States must develop the power politics of its friends and allies on China's periphery” (Blackwill / Tellis 2015: 27f.). In addition, the USA negotiated a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) [3] in order to "cut China off consistently from access to high technology" (ibid: 25). In 2015, a special report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the most important foreign policy think tank in the United States, demanded that, with immediate effect, any “internationalization of Chinese interests in the world must be countered with robust measures” (ibid: 36).

In China this inevitably led to the realization that the entire strategic "turn to Asia" should be understood as a large-scale attempt to contain and encircle China. Probably rightly too, because when he signed the TPP agreement, Obama himself said in 2016: "TPP allows America - and not countries like China - to write the rules of the road in the 21st century" (White House Office of the Press Secretary 2015) .

Chinese stubbornness

The discourse of “emerging versus dominant power” and the resulting policy of containing China are also marked by disappointment that this country is insisting on its own path of development. As recently as the 1990s, the prevailing opinion was based on the idea that China's embedding in a liberal world order would inevitably lead the country towards market capitalism and bourgeois parliamentarism. Economic reforms would make China more and more like the US and thus also receptive to US positions on global governance and the geopolitical status quo. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that China is far more resilient than many had believed or even hoped.

In terms of economy, China continues to insist on centralized political governance and a mixed economic order. Even if market mechanisms have been continuously expanded in the course of the reform policy, the command heights of the economy, such as banking and finance or the energy and infrastructure sector, are still occupied by state-owned companies. The Chinese government is making no move to change this principle.

Approximately 600 million Chinese have become relatively prosperous in the past 40 years. In stark contrast to popular opinion, especially in the West, these new middle classes form the legitimizing backbone of the CPC and strengthen its claim to leadership. The assumption that new ideas, ambitions and hopes of the middle classes would inevitably delegitimize the Chinese system was a western extension of its own agendas, own priorities and problem analyzes into a Chinese reality that is, however, shaped by completely different hopes, expectations and problems.

And finally: China's reform policy and, ultimately, the economic rise of the last few decades have been shaped by a pragmatic-realistic self-embedding in the existing international system of political and economic relations. China's "network strategy of embedded rise" (see Pang et al. 2017) is proactively adapting to globalization and trying to derive the greatest possible benefit from it for its own development. Although China's leadership has demonstrated its willingness to accept the current economic world order, this pragmatic acceptance does not mean that it is also convinced of this order. For although China's position in the global economic system is increasingly moving towards that of the developed industrial nations, it undeterred declares that it will coordinate its foreign policy in alliance with other so-called developing countries. In the global arena, China keeps a cautious distance from the US-led liberal world order and emphasizes that countries of the global south are playing an increasingly important role and that the current order must therefore change (ibid.).

Indeed, given the success of the China model, Chinese stubbornness poses a serious challenge to the current liberal trade regime and Western-preferred global governance norms. China seeks to create better conditions for itself (and others), which is fueling concerns in the US have that the institutions initiated by China compete with or even replace the western ones. At the same time, the Chinese government and the German government are presenting themselves as guardians of free world trade against protectionist dangers, for example at the G20 meeting in Hamburg in July 2017.

But above all, the obstinacy provides an ideal breeding ground for Trump's right-wing populist China discourse. First of all, a clear opponent can be identified: the other, the unknown, which - anticommunist, sometimes underpinned by racism - can be described as a constant threat. Second, China's rise lends itself to justifying the US's social and economic decline. In Trump's discourse, Chinese stubbornness primarily means not playing by the rules. And finally, thirdly, the rise of China on a global level symbolizes a much more far-reaching socio-economic dynamic of change, which can be contrasted in a completely unhistorical way with a romanticized and idealized world of old “American grandeur”.

The dilemma of Trump's China discourse, however, is that it remains unclear how moods, resentments and actionist symbolic politics can be translated into coherent politics. The USA has relatively little to counter the further economic rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region. A trade war with China would probably damage them as much as it would their rival. And after Trump's withdrawal from the TPP agreement, originally intended to keep China in check, Beijing is already scratching its feet and wants to fill the gap that has arisen. It no longer only sends goods and capital out into the world, but also ideas. In Africa and South America there are many admirers of the Chinese development path of state dirigism in the market economy. But Beijing will not really be able to keep up militarily and politically with the USA for a long time.The fact that China set up an overseas military base for the first time in July 2017 does not change that - in Djibouti, i.e. on the African continent, where China is particularly committed because it would not be able to manage its economic upswing without importing resources from African countries .

Claim to hegemony?

The USA represents a global hegemonic power and accordingly exercised this hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. Every great power strives for a hegemonic position - certainly also China - but in the area of ​​international relations the question always arises whether a sole claim to hegemony makes sense and brings more security for a state or not. In order to prevail against a ruling hegemonic power, enormous effort and considerable resources are required. In addition, such replacement attempts are usually doomed to failure. The USA was particularly successful in this regard because, on the one hand, it inherited its supremacy from a weak and democratic power with which it also has a certain political and cultural affinity - Great Britain - and, on the other hand, because it inherits its claim to hegemony in the long term could develop a pacified environment in which there was no threat in the immediate vicinity. The consent of the subordinate states was rewarded with protection, economic aid, access to markets, etc. The US model was economically successful and highly attractive.

China is also an attractive model for many countries in the global south, at least in parts. However, the situation for China is fundamentally different. With Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam in the immediate vicinity, but also with actors active in the region such as the USA, Russia and India, the attempt would be to establish Chinese hegemony in Asia , an extremely complex and challenging undertaking that would create additional tension and would not bring China any more security for the time being. That is why China has no ambition to dominate the region, at least for the foreseeable future.

Hegemony in an international context is based on a transnational historical bloc, whose power and rule structures connect several national societies with one another on the basis of a relatively constant arrangement of productive and political forms of organization. These structures include more than just states, including transnational corporations and capital elites; But it is state resources - above all military security, regulatory mechanisms, legal systems and institutions - that hold the bloc together. These resources have been provided and controlled primarily by the United States in the last few decades, even if the strength of the superpower of the 20th century has long been eroding.

The fact that Donald Trump was able to win the presidential election can be explained, among other things, by a hegemonic crisis resulting from the erosion of the material basis that has so far allowed the capitalist class to satisfy its needs as an essential prerequisite for the well-being of the entire country showcase. Since the beginning of the 21st century, especially after 2008, the claim that profits of the capital class are for the benefit of all classes has seemed more than doubtful. In the USA, this hegemonic crisis is also expressed in the fact that the political vehicles - the Democratic and Republican parties - seem to be disintegrating. In this context, the population may rally around a charismatic leader, but articulating a coherent project in which consent also has a material basis is almost impossible.

The central question now is how the hegemonic crisis in the global center will affect relations with China, the Asia-Pacific region and the global periphery. American dominance is based on the constitutive interlocking of power, ideology and institutions. With Trump's "neo-isolationism" the US is likely to withdraw ever further from international institutions, agreements and commitments, which means that the institutional mechanisms of this particular structure of international hegemony will be weakened; whether they will really dissolve remains to be seen. The question arises as to which international institutions, forms of government and social forces could replace them. China will not be able to fill this gap. Even if it has been promoting the development of alternative international institutions for a number of years and is increasingly getting involved in the existing ones, China lacks above all the global civil society network to lead an international historical bloc that could bring about a transformation of the existing structure.

Global hegemony also requires that leading politicians of a world power present themselves as guarantors of the existing world order, also from an ideological point of view. The US's claim to leadership over the past seven decades has been based on pretending to be the guardian of democracy, human rights and the free movement of capital and people around the world. The United States thus offered the world a universalist ideology in which different interests could be brought together harmoniously. The fact that this rhetoric was often used to obscure solid US interests does not need to be further elaborated here. Nevertheless: Hegemony is necessarily based on forms of balance, must offer real opportunities for development and generally convey the feeling that the existing order is in the best interests of all.

Trump's “America-first policy”, which only focuses on its own interests and unconditional superiority, throws general norms and principles overboard and only looks at US external relations on a case-by-case basis, destroys this ideological basis of Western hegemony. This will undoubtedly set the Asia-Pacific region moving and open some space to a Chinese claim to leadership. But overall, China - at least for the time being - will not be able to fill the ideological vacuum because it simply has no universalist ideology to offer. On the contrary: In recent years the Chinese government has repeatedly emphasized that its development model is unique and tailored to the Chinese situation, history and culture and that it cannot be exported to other regions of the world.

If Trump's presidency heralds the “end of the West”, then this is not yet the beginning of a “Chinese era”.


Blackwill, Robert D./Tellis, Ashley J., 2015: Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, Council on Foreign Relation Council Special Report No. 72, March 2015,

Diamond, Jeremy, 2016: Trump: We Can’t Continue to Allow China to Rape Our Country,

Gray, Alexander / Navarro, Peter, 2016: Donald Trump's Peace through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific, pacific /

Kahl, Colin / Brands, Hal, 2017: Trump’s Grand Strategic Train Wreck,

Pang, Xun / Liu, Linda / Ma, Stephanie, 2017: China’s Network Strategy for Seeking Great Power Status, in: Chinese Journal of International Politics 10 (1), 1–29

White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2015: Remarks by President Obama at the University of Queensland,

White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2016: Statement by the President on the Signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, pacific partnership


[1] The “one-China policy” is the state policy of the People's Republic that Taiwan is not an independent state, but belongs to China. As a result, she does not want diplomatic relations with states that recognize Taiwan.

[2] With this term, Trump is assumed to be a diplomatic zero-sum game approach, which Trump borrows from his work as a capital entrepreneur and translates it into the language of the good or bad deals have dressed. In this understanding of international politics, the gains of one are the losses of the other (cf. Kahl / Brands 2017).

[3] In early 2016, the trade agreement 'Trans-Pacific Partnership '(TPP) signed between Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the USA. It was seen as the centerpiece of President Obama's foreign policy reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region and was intended to bind the states more closely together by dismantling trade barriers and at the same time to reduce China's growing influence in the region. However, on November 21, 2016, President Trump announced that he would terminate TPP.