China or America: Who's Really 'Bossing the World?' | Opinion

China and the United States, in dueling U.N. speeches by their leaders this week, presented starkly different visions of the world.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler, wrapped himself in the mantle of the American-built international system—but in reality, he poses the most dangerous threat to it. Trump sounded like he wanted to take down the post-World War II order, but he is its most important defender.

"No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself," said Xi in his Monday remarks commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. "Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world."

Xi repeated the themes, although with less-pointed language, in his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday.

The Chinese supremo did not name the villainous figure attempting to name himself boss, but everyone knew he was referring to President Donald Trump.

Xi misrepresented Trump's views. Trump, echoing the themes in his inauguration speech, made it clear he has far narrower ambitions than the Chinese leader described. "For decades, the same tired voices proposed the same failed solutions, pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people," the American president told the General Assembly on Tuesday. "But only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis for cooperation."

Trump's formula for a better world? "As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first," he stated. "That's okay—that's what you should be doing."

Trump's articulation of his vision was neither lofty nor inspirational. Of course, nobody likes to hear the description of grubby reality, especially from the United States.

Yet in Xi's eloquence lies danger. "The understanding that we are all in the same boat is now a popular consensus in the global community," he told the U.N. on Monday.

Sometimes Beijing expresses this thought as the "common destiny" of humankind. Unfortunately, the regime is referring to the imperial-era notion that China's emperor ruled tianxia, or "all under Heaven." All peoples, in the Chinese conception of the world, had the common obligation—or "destiny"—to be subservient to China's ruler.

Xi Jinping has employed tianxia language for more than a decade, but recently his references have become unmistakable. "The Chinese have always held that the world is united and all under heaven are one family," he declared in his 2017 New Year's Message.

And if this were not clear enough, Xi's foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Study Times, the Central Party School's influential newspaper, in September 2017 wrote an article that came close to explicitly rejecting the current international system. The current system, founded in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia, recognizes states as sovereign. Wang Yi wrote that Xi Jinping has "transcended" sovereignty.

So the boss of the world, at least in his own estimation, is Xi.

Trump's narrow vision, therefore, is a much-needed antidote for U.N. rhetoric, which, even ignoring Xi for the moment, was especially over-the-top this year. The 193-member body is now celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding.

Yet will—or should—the institution make it to Year 76?

President Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump in Oval Office Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

The U.N.'s predecessor, the League of Nations, was founded in the wake of World War I and collapsed as first Asia, and then Europe, descended into the second global conflict of the 20th century. The organization, which would have marked its centenary this year, promoted the outlawing of war—codified in the still-in-force Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928—but could not compel compliance or ensure peace and stability. The League utterly failed to stop Italy's 1935 invasion of Abyssinia, Japan's 1931 takeover of Manchuria or Germany's 1938 absorption of Austria.

The United Nations was able to defend South Korea from North Korea's 1950 invasion only because the Soviet Union's delegate was not present when the Security Council voted to come to Seoul's aid. The Council, dominated by five permanent members, cannot now act against the world's two aggressors, China and Russia, because they wield vetoes and never allow votes without their presence.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the U.N. looked the other way as Vladimir Putin dismembered Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. Similarly, the body did nothing about Chinese aggression against the Philippines in 2012, and is doing nothing now while Chinese soldiers occupy India. Moreover, the U.N. is silent as China's regime commits acts of genocide, mass internment, slave-running and other crimes against humanity.

As James Holmes of the Naval War College wrote last year in his Naval Diplomat blog, "you get the peace you enforce." Unfortunately, the U.N. today enforces nothing.

President Trump called on the organization for enforcement. Referring to the coronavirus, he said, "we must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China."

"Unleashed" is correct. China took steps to deliberately spread the disease beyond its borders. Most critically, Xi knew the novel coronavirus could be transmitted from one human to another, but tried to convince the world it was not. At the same time, he pressured countries to not impose travel restrictions or quarantines on arrivals from China while he locked down Wuhan and other cities, preventing travel inside his country.

We do not know what Xi was thinking, but if he wanted to cripple other societies to level the playing field after seeing what the virus did to his, he would have done exactly what he in fact did. And now he is trying to take advantage of the pandemic, touting his system as superior to all others.

The world needs more than ever to contain Xi's ambitions and his "Wolf Warrior diplomacy." This year, the militant Chinese regime has gone on a bender, killing Indian soldiers, engineering boat bumping and other incidents against six South China Sea and East China Sea neighbors, stepping up the tempo of dangerous intercepts of the U.S. armed forces in the global commons and trying its best to start a war with Taiwan with provocative aerial maneuvers close to that island.

Why now? Chinese leaders like Xi may be seeing a closing window of opportunity to achieve historic ambitions. This January, the official Xinhua News Agency ran a piece entitled, "Xi Stresses Racing Against Time to Reach Chinese Dream."

So Xi is perhaps at his most dangerous. He demands obedience because he wants to be "boss of the world" and knows he must act soon. From the U.N., he blames Trump for ambitions the American leader does not have, and cloaks his own grandiose goals in the language of "multilateralism."

China's conception of multilateralism puts the world at peril. Only when member-states start defending their own interests, instead of accommodating Chinese communists, will the U.N be able to fulfill the mission it was founded on 75 years ago.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.