By Alex Wyckoff
Source: The Guardian
President Donald Trump sailed into his 2016 election victory, at least in part, through his promises to pursue aggressive policies against China. Four years later and with the 2020 presidential election looming, it is apparent that the President is ill-equipped to pursue such a strategy.
Take for instance the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s $8 trillion infrastructure plan for forging new economic partnerships around the world through development of the “belt” - new land transportation routes by road and rail, and the “road” - sea routes. As of writing this, 117 nations have agreed to economic partnerships pertaining to the BRI, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s population.
If any significant portion of this project is completed, it will become the largest contiguous economic zone in history and will affect the logistics of commercial and cultural interaction for three-fourths of the population for decades to come. The Council on Foreign Relations has noted that the project, “would expand the international use of Chinese currency.”
Yet, despite entering office with a surging economy, the President and his administration have struggled to present a viable alternative. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross attacked Chinese lending practices at the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Washington D.C. this past October, and the President himself has worked with private industry to begin developing a $60 billion finance development strategy, but virtually no other actions have been taken.
Instead of addressing the core issue – China’s rapid development of new infrastructure and incentive for economic partnerships – the President has sought to seem tough on China through his tariffs. Instead of helping reduce the deficit between U.S. and Chinese trade, however, the tariffs resulted in a trade war that increased the trade deficit with China by 2% and increased the U.S. global trade deficit by 8%.
The figure below further indicates that since the trade war began, China’s trade balance has hit a surplus due to BRI partnerships with other nations on land-intensive agricultural products.
The graph on the left shows emerging markets, new markets and profit around the world, in billions of U.S. dollars. The first wave of the President’s tariffs on China, indicated by the black line on the graph, serves as a cut-off point at which time the rest of the world began to increase their share of emerging markets and thus increased their profit while the U.S. lost billions in profit at the same time.
The graph on the right shows export of goods to China. As a result of the tariffs, China began exporting from other countries rather than the U.S., strengthening Chinese partnerships with other nations and creating good faith for continued economic development with the BRI.
Meanwhile, Beijing has also successfully utilized the BRI to augment its military capacity, having leveraged debt owed by other nations to recently acquire a dozen seaports in the Indian Ocean and fifteen seaports in the Indo-Pacific area alone, all on terms favorable to China. One such purchase has been the Ream Naval Port in Cambodia, an underdeveloped area with high potential for development of long-range naval capabilities.
China has invested a great deal of time and money into building infrastructure at ports such as Gwadar (Pakistan), Koh Kong (Cambodia), and Hambantota (Sri Lanka), all of which are noteworthy for their commercial unprofitability, suggesting Beijing’s intent to use them for Navy presence. Subsequently, China has also been able to vastly increase their presence along the Strait of Malacca, a naval choke point through which 80% of its oil supplies travel.
One of the results of these innovations is that Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan and Tajikistan will owe more than half of all their foreign debt to China due to the BRI, with other countries to follow. Some of China’s other projects include a China-Pakistan economic corridor, the Sino-Myanmar Oil Pipeline, and a Djibouti Logistics Support base.
In the time it took China to develop all of that, President Trump has disgraced and lost or fired dozens of capable military and economic professionals, including H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, and John Bolton, the latter of whom resigned amid tactical disagreements with the President.
The Trump Administration has had a record turnover rate for cabinet officials, and the result has been a messy foreign policy that has lambasted U.S. allies, come to the brink of war with Iran and North Korea over arguments on twitter, and ultimately failed to produce a viable military strategy to counteract the Chinese naval developments resulting from the BRI.
It is clear from both the economic and military failures of his administration that the President lacks both the preparedness and the skill required to compete with China in the aggressive way that he promised.
Even despite his inadequacy, President Trump could have salvaged the situation by relying on the expertise of those who were once around him. Instead, the President, who once famously claimed that no one knows the military better than him and that his gut tells him more than any expert can, has chased away anyone that could have helped him simply because he is so notorious for being unwilling to listen to anyone who contradicts him.
In the end, Americans must come to realize that it is not enough to simply act tough. Competing with such potent rivals around the world requires knowledge and expertise, and if we are to have any chance of competing with China and making America great again, it is imperative that we vote for someone with actual experience governing.
If we fail to do so and instead provide Trump and his boastful rhetoric with a second term, then by the time we realize our folly it will already be too late for the U.S. to catch up, and the rest of the world will leave us behind.
Alex Wyckoff is a community organizer and former employee of the California Democratic Party. He is currently a first year graduate student studying public policy at UC San Diego with a focus in security policy and social inequality.