China's Xi has a single-mindedness Trump can only dream of

China shows off force in South China Sea
China shows off force in South China Sea

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(CNN)The images could not have provided a greater contrast. At one point on the globe, a nation's leader in military fatigues, overseeing its largest display of naval power ever, and in waters that are at the heart of a regional territorial dispute.

At another, a besieged president waylaid by seemingly endless domestic turmoil and under pressure from the international community bracing for the fallout from Friday's US-led punitive strike on Syria.
If the images demonstrate anything at all, it could be that as America's commander-in-chief's focus is split, China's has a singular aim.
For Xi Jinping, his destroyer carving through the South China Sea, there was only one unmistakable message transmitted to the world: It's China First.
    The singlemindedness of Xi's strategy to expand China's influence and reach contrasts sharply with the ever-shifting stance of US President Donald Trump, who came to power declaring his administration would put America first.
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    But at home, he faces a tough task pushing through his agenda and the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling is casting a shadow over his presidency.
    And abroad, he is facing some of the most complex foreign policy challenges that even administrations with little instability would find difficult to parse.

    Smaller countries will fill the vacuum left by the US

    China's Xi recently solidified his power grab, effectively becoming president for life. Observers regard the Communist Party's ability to have one cohesive approach to the country's economic and political future a foregone conclusion, something that sets it apart from democracies that swing across the political spectrum during election cycles and often introduce administrations who run counter to their predecessors.
    "What's different with Xi is you have one-man rule with a man who seems very strategically astute, especially compared to the guy who is occupying the White House right now, or at least, that's the perception of some of us in smaller countries," said Richard Heydarian, Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, Philippines.
    With China's continued rise, countries in the Asia Pacific, many of them traditional allies of the US, are having to recalibrate their relationships and their policies to factor in not only Washington's inconsistencies, but also a more aggressive Beijing.
    "We may have a post-American order where America is no longer at the top," Heydarian told CNN. Trump's presidency "has provided an incentive for other powers to step up and if they combine their GDPs and their military prowess, they will be able to match that of China."
    Heydarian pointed to Japan, saying that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is using threats of abandonment by America to explain to the Japanese people why they needed to become a 'normal country' again - one with the ability to declare war or use force to settle international disputes.
    "If Abe manages to stay in power, I think we may finally see Japan be a normal power and then not only will it stand up to the US, it will also be a major force to be reckoned with, because of its economic strength too."

    Trump's foreign policy focus split

    On Friday, Trump announced he had given the order for US forces to strike the Syrian regime for a suspected chemical attack that is said to have killed dozens of civilians last weekend.
    Trump began the week by vowing a tough response, a "big price to pay," and blamed both Russia and Iran for protecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, vetoing punitive measures at the United Nations and providing military support on the ground.
    But it was only several days before the news of the chemical attack emerged that Trump had declared his intent to withdraw US troops from Syria within six months. Now, that deadline appears to be in question.
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    He has a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to prepare for. That is expected now to take place either in late May or early June.
    He is also dealing with an FBI investigation into Russian interference during the US presidential elections in 2016.
    Things are far more stable for Xi.

    Does Trump even have an Asia strategy?

    "China is able to send out a consistent message that it is a powerful country, it is able to project this in a coordinated manner and show leadership, while the Trump foreign policy is rather confused," said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
    "People wonder does Trump have an Asia strategy, many of the US allies worry that he will never have a clear, consistent Asia strategy and if he is interested in actually making that happen. That's probably to China's advantage as well."
    Over time, say analysts, China's primacy in the region will be unquestioned, and it may be too late for American power to challenge it. "If China doesn't have internal chaos, China will establish regional primacy," says Zhang.
    He says if Trump wants to counter this, he should "pursue a more consistent set of military and economic policies to compete with China."
    Right now, the US military has three aircraft carriers in Pacific waters. And while the US military has remained focused on hemming in China's ambition in the South China Sea while maintaining readiness in the face of North Korea's nuclear threat, Trump's burgeoning international trade disagreements differ sharply with China's economic approach.
    The One Belt One Road initiative involves China pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into construction projects across Asia, Europe and Africa, but critics say that it also comes at a tremendous cost for the nations hosting the projects, with not only financial hardship, but also the expectation that it will align politically with China on international matters.

    'It's hard for the US to compete'

    "As long as China maintains high economic growth, the power transition will be unavoidable. If everyone depends on exports to China then China has a lot of influence no matter who is president," said Zhang.
    "It's hard for the US to compete," he said. "China has more resources, the US really has no money to be able to do that."
    In his first week in office Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a deal that would have slashed tariffs for American imports and exports with the other countries involved.
    On Thursday, he directed his advisers to look at re-entering the negotiations. But the other countries in the pact, including Australia and Japan, have moved forward on the trade agreement, recently signing the TPP-11, which didn't include the United States.
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    Trump is reconsidering his stance on the behemoth trans-Pacific trade deal as he inches closer to a trade war with China. Critics of the President's decision to pull the US from the deal have argued that the US would have more leverage in a trade dispute with China if the US had remained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
    "Trump has given more ability to the Pentagon to challenge China in the South China Sea, but in economic terms he has completely reversed the roles of the US and China," said Heydarian. "When Trump doesn't put any economic initiatives on the table and the Chinese do, it really makes it look like the future belongs to China."