By any reasonable measure, it’s been a good year for China. From the South China Sea to climate change to jockeying over global leadership, the dominoes have fallen in Beijing’s favor again and again.
“China has managed, partly through its own actions and partly through the influence of Trump, to essentially put itself in a position where it has a lot more choices and a lot more opportunities,” Professor Rana Mitter, the director of the University China Centre at Oxford University told CNN.
While the United States has seen its political system lurch from crisis to crisis throughout 2017, Chinese President Xi seamlessly tightened his hold on power during the Communist Party Congress in October.
The only cloud in a blue Chinese sky has been the lengthy standoff between North Korea and the United States, which has left a frustrated China stuck between its former ally and its current rival.
While Mitter said some of the credit belongs to the Communist Party leadership, other experts said the arrival of Trump has been the primary catalyst.
The more Trump “made himself a laughing stock,” the better China appeared by comparison, said Xu Guoqi, a University of Hong Kong professor and author of “Chinese and Americans: A Shared History” told CNN.
“Ironically, he seems to have clearly helped make China great internationally,” he said.
The forgotten people
In any other country, the death of a Nobel Prize Winner would be a time of national mourning amid a general celebration of their achievements. China’s only Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died under police guard in a northeastern Chinese hospital in July.
A pro-democracy advocate who took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Liu had been in jail since 2009 for calling for political reform and human rights in China.
But despite the grim circumstances surrounding the end of his life and China’s refusal to let him seek medical help overseas, Liu’s death passed without comment in his home country and a muted reaction worldwide — most notably from within the White House.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at University of California, Irvine, said the chaos inside the Trump administration had accidentally drawn the world’s attention from Liu’s death.
“(He was) the first Nobel Peace Prize winner since Nazi times to die in prison,” Wasserstrom told CNN. “That would have been, and should have been, a much bigger story than it was.”
In June a visit by President Xi to Hong Kong, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, went off without a hitch.
Human rights were long viewed as a blight on China’s international reputation, said University of Hong Kong’s Xu. But now, thanks to “Trump undermining America’s soft power, China’s credibility and image seems to have gained.”
The global champion
The defender of the global economy, the United States, was handing over power to a fierce protectionist in Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a supposedly communist leader was appearing to be its strongest supporter.
“Any objective observer would know the US has far more open markets than China, but it was a way Xi (could) balance himself against the unexpected rhetoric of Trump and take advantage,” Mitter said.
“There’s been a series of US own goals,” Wasserstrom said. “(Leaving the Paris agreement) made Xi Jinping look very good in comparison.”
But this doesn’t mean it has been all smooth sailing diplomatically in 2017.
“It’s been extremely heavy handed and the obvious point to make has been China can’t be having a successful Korean Peninsula policy when it has poor relations with both North and South,” Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, told CNN.
The unsolvable crisis
Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have repeatedly exchanged fiery words during 2017 amid a series of antagonistic missile launches and a nuclear test ordered by Pyongyang.
Caught between the two of them is the Chinese government, seemingly frustrated by its Korean neighbor’s aggressive posturing and consistently pressed by Trump to do more to constrain Pyongyang.
“(Chinese policy makers) are increasingly annoyed and angered by North Korea’s behavior,” Mitter said.
China, which is estimated to account for more than 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade, has taken steps to implement beefed-up UN sanctions targeting coal and other goods.
While the North Korean crisis has been frustrating for Beijing, Wasserstrom said it hasn’t all been bad news for Chinese leaders.
“With North Korea being more aggressive and testing nuclear weapons, the world has less time to pay attention to the South China Sea,” he said.
But the issue has fallen from the headlines in 2017, partly due to a China-friendly government in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte and the United States’ focus on North Korea.
“The strategic advantage seems to lie very much with the Chinese … there are still a lot of disputes that need to be played out (but) the Chinese have basically been creating a scenario in the South China Sea which makes it much harder for anyone to push back against them,” Mitter said.
‘Power in the region will change’
Xu said it was clear Trump was clearly working toward a closer, friendlier relationship with China despite his harsh, populist anti-China rhetoric during the campaign.
“(But) with Xi’s further strengthened power and Trump’s uncertain political fortune at home and abroad, China’s international rise seems to be certain,” he said.
Trump’s Asia trip is his big chance to win back nervous US diplomatic partners and allies in the Asia region, Mitter says.
“If Trump essentially gives those states to understand that US presence in the region can no longer be guaranteed … other countries will start to hedge now, for an alternative future in which the Chinese will be more powerful,” he said.
There’s already indications some members of Trump’s administration are growing tired of China throwing its weight around.
But even if the next US President pivots back to Asia, or holds Beijing to account on human rights, or reasserts US military presence in the region, the gains China has made in 2017 will be hard to roll back.
“Whatever happens in two years, four years, eight years, the region will not stay still. Decisions will be made and the nature of power in the region will change, within months not years,” he said.