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America’s withdrawal, China’s gain

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China is starting off 2017 on its “Second Continent” with a bang. In December, Beijing convinced one of Taiwan’s few remaining friends in Africa – the small islands of São Tomé and Príncipe – to sever diplomatic ties with Taipei. While reports in Taiwanese media suggested that the island nation’s decision had stemmed from Taipei’s refusal to grant financial support, it’s likely Beijing orchestrated the switch using its well-honed political and economic toolkit.

The defection suggests that China is taking pocketbook diplomacy to the next level, willing to take a more confrontational tack against Taiwan. Just last week, Burkina Faso and Swaziland, Taiwan’s two remaining allies in Africa, said they would not break off relations with Taipei despite numerous financial offers hinging on their recognition of the One-China principle. It’s unclear for how long the two countries will be able to withstand Beijing’s pressure, now that the US is significantly narrowing its foreign policy objectives.

Donald Trump, for one, has said little to nothing about his foreign policy plans for the continent. His most recent actions only indicate that Washington will disengage, reviewing and likely reducing foreign aid, rethinking American security policy, and halting or culling trade agreements. Meanwhile, Beijing is boosting its engagement with Africa, opening up its markets for African produce, increasing financial assistance programs, and helping African students study in China. China is already Africa’s biggest trading partner, with US$222 billion in goods and resources swapped in 2014. Sino-African relations further comprise the realms of aid, health, education, finance, trade and cooperation.

In countries like Djibouti, where the US and China are already clear competitors, this means Beijing is likely to gain the upper hand. The tiny authoritarian state hosts America’s only permanent military base in Africa, and will soon host China’s first overseas naval base as well. The reason for this great power real estate demand that is that the country is a convenient springboard from which to stage military action in geopolitical hotspots of Yemen and Somalia. It’s no wonder U.S ambassador Tom Kelly described Djibouti as being “at the forefront of our national security policy right now”.

Despite Djibouti’s strategic significance, it’s unlikely that the Trump administration will continue to support it. Trump will probably look poorly on the China cozying policies of long-reigning dictator Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has increasingly turned his back on the US and other Western allies. In 2015, for instance, Guelleh tried to give Beijing a concession over its key port, raising the prospect that US troops might have to pass critical supplies through a Chinese-run port. Last year, his government kicked out a small American outpost in the Obock area in order to make way for China’s future brick and mortar installation, much to Washington’s chagrin.

With Donald Trump as president, China has every reason to act more assertively on the global stage – which is ironic, given the new president’s posturing against Beijing on the campaign trail. Coming into the job with hardly any knowledge of diplomatic protocol or even a basic understanding of longstanding foreign policy objectives, Trump is taking a wrecking ball to the very elements that can contain Beijing.

Trump’s decision to kill off the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that was devised to limit China’s economic influence in Asia and solidify American standing in a region that has many of the world’s fastest-growing economies is a case in point. By jettisoning the trade deal, Trump has given Xi Jinping carte blanche to push forward other economic and trade policies that ultimately work in China’s favor. Beijing has already proposed two multilateral commercial deals as alternatives to the TPP – the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It seems that China is willing to take a leadership role on trade not only in its own backyard, but on the global stage as well. In Davos in mid-January, Xi acted like the adult in the room when compared to Trump, suggesting China was prepared to fill the void left by the US by promoting free trade and fighting climate change.

Trump’s threats to quit the Paris climate accords are another foolhardy move that will only work in China’s favor. Cutting off US investment in solar, wind, and other clean energy technology will hand over a US$1.35 trillion annual world market to Beijing, which is already ramping up its investment in green technology. US withdrawal from action against global warming would also weaken American soft power, allowing Beijing to take a leadership role on the issue and further boost its world standing.

Looking ahead, Trump’s “America First” brouhaha, and his combative comments have harmed relations with Japan, Australia and other regional allies will do even more to bolster China’s position. US disengagement from the world stage and from the policies it has upheld for decades, all play to the advantage of a competing world power that is eager to take up the reins. Trump’s anti-China posturing, then, is more than just shortsighted. It works against the interests of the US and the liberal order as we know it.

Jon Connars
Jon Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently shuttling between Singapore and Bangkok with expertise in the ASEAN region. He has been featured in The Hill, The Diplomat and Asia Times.
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