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With Trump Pulling U.S. From Trade Deals, Will China Take Its Place?


Big meeting today. President Donald Trump will meet China's president Xi Jinping at Trump's private club in Florida. This meeting comes as the U.S. is turning inward, perhaps leaving a leadership vacuum that China seems pretty eager to fill. NPR's Rob Schmitz explores whether China is up to this task.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Last September, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed the Paris Agreement to curb climate warming emissions.


BARACK OBAMA: In joining the Paris Agreement today, we're demonstrating our shared commitment to climate change.

SCHMITZ: It was the culmination of years of work. And the leaders of the world's two largest economies were setting the course for other countries to follow. Last month, President Trump took seconds to sign an executive order to reverse regulations that would help bring the U.S. into compliance with the agreement.

JAMES MCGREGOR: People wanted American leadership. And we've just kind of crumbled and walked away from it.

SCHMITZ: James McGregor is an author and executive at consulting firm APCO Worldwide. He's been based in China for 30 years. Whether it's reversing course on climate change or pulling the U.S. out of an international trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he says President Trump is ceding leadership to China, a country he says that is not fit to lead.

MCGREGOR: What they've done so far is they've joined all the international organizations. And when those rules work for them, they go along with them. And when the rules don't work for China, they just ignore them and act like they're going along with them.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: In January, in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Xi Jinping praised globalization and free trade. As the U.S. began to turn inward, China's president was making the case that China would step in and lead the way by saying no to protectionism.

CHRISTOPHER BALDING: I almost laughed out loud.

SCHMITZ: Christopher Balding is an economics professor at Peking University's HSBC Business School in the city of Shenzhen.

BALDING: Xi goes to Davos and talks about the need to open the world and we shouldn't be building walls. And at the same time in China, they're literally criminalizing VPNs to access internet servers that are not based in China. And so the disconnect between what China says publicly and how they behave in China when there's a lot less press is striking.

SCHMITZ: Examples, says Balding, abound. China's president promotes free trade. But on the ground, the government requires foreign companies to enter into joint ventures with Chinese companies and either forces them to hand over or simply steals their technology.

China's Defense Ministry says there is no such thing as manmade islands in the disputed South China Sea when China's military has constructed artificial islands and armed them, too. Balding says true leadership is leading by example. He says that's what the U.S. did in the years following World War II by pushing international institutions and free trade.

BALDING: And you can even make a very strong argument that the United States was essentially making a sacrifice to open its markets more because they felt it was the right thing to do. They wanted to lead by example. They wanted to build that broad net of allies.

SCHMITZ: Of course, the new world order also served U.S. interests. And today when China leads, says Balding, it does so out of self-interest too, like its leadership on climate change.

ALEX WANG: They're doing quite a lot, but they are tremendous contributors to the problem.

SCHMITZ: China, says UCLA law professor Alex Wang, produces the emissions of the U.S. and the EU combined, resulting in terrible air pollution that's become a social stability problem for China's government. A big reason why China is taking action, leading the world in clean energy investment and emissions goals. But its policy is inconsistent. China continues to build coal-fired power plants. Wang's worried that China might not be ready to lead by example on climate change.

WANG: I think one of the fears about what's going on in the U.S. with Trump stepping back from Climate Action is that, you know, some people think Chinese leaders may not want to be out there by themselves.

SCHMITZ: In other words, if the U.S. refuses to lead, China will, too. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.