Just over three years later, the Trump administration, citing “information sharing deficiencies and national security risk factors,” has now expanded the ban to six more countries. Citizens from Nigeria, Eritrea, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan can no longer apply for visas to work and live in the United States; Sudan and Tanzania will no longer be able to participate in the diversity visa lottery, which gives green cards to 50,000 immigrants from underrepresented countries randomly each year.
This new ban is likely to strain ties with these countries, including some that already cooperate with the United States and others that Washington has been courting. It is also a diplomatic windfall for China.
All of the countries mentioned in the expansion have deepened economic ties and cooperation with Beijing in recent years. And while the United States retains some goodwill in most of them, this new ban will further diminish the image of the United States in these countries, pushing them further into Beijing’s sphere of influence and further from democracy.
Chinese interest in the targeted countries has been clear for years. Five of the countries are part of China’s ambitious $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative. The sixth, Eritrea, has in the past year gone on record supporting the project — an unsurprising position given that China is Eritrea’s “largest investor, creditor and trading partner.”
China has made Nigeria one of its largest investment partners in Africa, investing $5 billion there in 2015 alone. Chinese investment in Tanzania exceeds $7 billion. China wrote off $10 billion of Sudan’s debt in 2018, also investing the “largest share” of $60 billion in African aid there. China owns nearly half of Kyrgyzstan’s $3.8 billion foreign debt. American firms, on the other hand, often shy away from these markets, citing lacking institutions.
Chinese influence in Myanmar has waxed and waned, but the Myanmar government is facing international isolation for its military’s violent expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims. This makes it once again reliant on Beijing. Chinese leader Xi Jinping recently visited Myanmar and signed dozens of deals with its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who said: “It goes without saying that a neighboring country has no other choice, but to stand together till the end of the world.”
Some of these countries have also provided cover for China internationally over its abuses of more than a million Muslims in Xinjiang. All but Kyrgyzstan and Tanzania signed a July letter defending what Beijing calls “vocation education and training centers” — what most everyone else recognizes to be detention camps.
Yet, there have been signs of growing anti-China sentiment in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. Chinese workers have been killed in Sudan. Tanzania is pushing back on a 2013 Chinese deal to build a port, halting the project temporarily. Meanwhile, the United States retains significant support: A majority of Nigerians, Tanzanians and Burmese hold pro-U.S. views. Sudan’s new leadership has sought to improve ties with the United States, and the two countries exchanged ambassadors for the first time in 23 years last December. The United States has also indicated it wants to grow closer to Eritrea and is set to announce a new strategy for Central Asia (which includes Kyrgyzstan). Even Nigeria, where pro-China sentiment is overwhelming, is a close U.S. ally and counterterrorism partner.
This has all given the United States some diplomatic space — space that the Trump administration is now squandering.
Under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the United States sidelined human rights in favor of U.S. interests, allowing Washington to pursue ties with unsavory regimes such as those in Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. Although this was a deeply imperfect policy, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has unwisely swung American strategy to the other side of the spectrum.
In the context of Pompeo’s sanction-laden, “all sticks and no carrots approach,” the expanded travel ban further isolates the United States and drives home the narrative that, under Trump, it has been untrustworthy and unpredictable. China, on the other hand, still offers simpler, “no strings attached” partnerships and could use this opportunity to bring these countries deeper into its fold.
Washington needs to develop a principled foreign policy that combines pressure on human rights, which can sometimes imply sanctions, with continued and patient engagement. The travel ban expansion, however, is anything but patient. Instead, the administration’s rash focus on immigration restrictions has delivered a self-inflicted diplomatic blow — and an unexpected win for China.