As attention focuses on the dimming prospects for NAFTA, the threat from North Korea and the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, among other global flashpoints, less notice is being given to what may be the most consequential event of the moment: the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. President Xi Jinping is on course to consolidate his political power in the world's most populous country to an extent unseen since the days of Deng Xiaoping.
Mr. Xi's Castro-like 3-1/2-hour sermon to the party faithful, which clearly tested the attention spans of senior party elders such as former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, contained more than a whiff of confident nationalism. Mr. Xi served notice that China has global ambitions and that its system of authoritarian capitalism has nothing to learn from Western values of democracy and human rights.
What is already happening in China is significant enough. What the future portends signifies the extent to which China's growing economic and military power may dominate the remainder of this century. Worth watching will be whether the unadulterated grip on power of Mr. Xi personally and the Communist Party he leads can continue to manage the benefits and the social pressures of its remarkable surge as smoothly and successfully as it has to date.
Mr. Xi faces many serious internal challenges, including taking control of China's growing mountain of public debt, which some estimate to be double the country's GDP; reducing the number of state-owned enterprises, which still dominate the economy and feed rampant corruption; tackling the country's major environmental crisis in water and air-borne pollution; and addressing the growing income gap between China's rich, urban classes and the rural poor.
The One Belt, One Road infrastructure program is China's biggest foreign policy initiative. Billions are being spent in the regions neighbouring China to build trade routes through Pakistan and Central Asia. This program provides benefits for China's neighbours, but the motives are not altruistic: It will reduce China's dependence on its eastern seaboard and the Strait of Malacca as the channel for its imports and exports; and it is critical to strengthening China's competitive position vis-à-vis the U.S. and to increasing its influence over its immediate neighbours.
Having few qualms about governance and human rights standards well below the norm, China has no inhibitions about major investments in countries that others, particularly Western countries, generally shun – North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar or Uganda being among the most notable.
Unquestionably, China's power, prestige and influence is on the rise globally. Against the cacophony emanating these days from Washington and the bumbling track record in Europe, China stands out as a beacon of relative stability – an authoritarian stability that is attractive to leaders of a similar bent, including those in Ankara and Moscow.
China's ambitions for greater global influence are not inspired by any special desire to be a force for good in the world – rather, as a force for what is good for China. In that sense, though, China's approach is really not that different than the "America First" nationalism enunciated in varying degrees these days by the Trump administration.
The key question going forward is whether these competing visions and competitive super-egos will clash or converge on global issues. North Korea is a case in point. When the Trump administration signalled brashly that it would suspend all trade with any country that maintained trade links with North Korea, Beijing made some modest moves to limit its trade links with Pyongyang but essentially ignored the U.S. threat. The Chinese decided prudently and pragmatically that there was no value in engaging in the Twitter universe of Donald Trump. That in itself is reassuring.
Despite all the huffing and puffing about Chinese currency manipulation and its trade surplus, the U.S. has yet to take any remedial action against China on trade. (Canada offers a much easier target for Mr. Trump's outsized and misdirected anti-globalization tirades.) Clearly, the symbiotic nature of their economic relationship cuts both ways.
The challenge more broadly for the "liberal international order," one on which U.S. leadership has been the essential element for more than seven decades, will be managing China's increasing global influence as the U.S. appetite to lead continues to wane.
Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. Fen Osler Hampson is chancellor's professor at Carleton University and the author of the forthcoming book Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney's Global Legacy.