The campaign was outlined in barely veiled terms in a recent speech delivered by China’s defense minister to a closed-door meeting in Beijing with U.N. Security Council representatives. The Chinese effort is having growing influence, say experienced diplomats who attended the meeting.
“The Chinese have correctly assessed that American allies now doubt they can ever rely on the U.S. again in many areas,” said one senior Western diplomat. “President Trump seems to represent enough of American public doubts and distrust of foreign nations that we all have to reexamine our place in the international order.”
The Trump White House is clearly aware of China’s newly stoked ambitions. National security adviser John Bolton devoted much of a Dec. 13 speech at the Heritage Foundation to accusing China of using “bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” He singled out China’s “One Belt, One Road” economic initiative as being a tool to advance “Chinese global dominance .”
But the White House response to China’s diplomatic and economic campaign contains two glaring failures.
It does not recognize or seek to correct its own role in creating the conditions that cause allies to doubt U.S. resolve and support. And it has missed the expansion of Chinese strategic aims into undermining American leadership in the transatlantic and global institutions that have helped preserve global stability since World War II. White House staffers are either asleep at the switch or, more likely, deliberately looking away from the impulsive, vindictive and frequently childish behavior of a president who treats his partners as cheats, liars or fools.
Trump makes no secret of his intentions. With startling and ill-advised candor, he has told at least one leader of a NATO ally that his campaign to break China’s unfair trade practices is a prelude to an effort he will then lead to “destroy” European Union practices that have created trade imbalances with the United States. The comment was taken by this leader as the nail in the coffin of transatlantic cooperation during the Trump presidency and perhaps beyond, according to an aide who recounted the conversation on condition of anonymity.
Awareness of the frazzled state of American leadership abroad pervaded the remarks made by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to members of the Security Council who visited Beijing on Nov. 26. The meeting was intended to focus on China’s role in international peacekeeping missions. But participants portray Wei as laying heavy emphasis on the need for new leadership at the United Nations and in international affairs, and on China’s ability and willingness to take on a greater role in both if other states cooperated with Beijing.
“He put flesh on the bones of One Belt, One Road as a strategic concept,” said one diplomat present at the meeting. “He made clear other nations would have to make choices in the kind of alliances they join or stay in.”
Two weeks later, Bolton sharply denounced the Chinese One Belt program of loans and investments that is intended to develop trade routes leading to and from China. The Chinese use their economic leverage to take over African ports and national industries, and in Djibouti to establish a military base that interferes with a nearby U.S. base, he complained.
But Bolton’s speech was also heavy with Trump-like complaints that past U.S. aid to Africa had been wasted and suggestions that future aid would be conditioned on political loyalty from recipients. Bolton did avoid outhouse analogies in talking about African countries.
Meanwhile, China is rapidly becoming a strategic competitor in Europe, where Chinese investments and loans target infrastructure and new technology assets. China invested nine times more in Europe than it did in the United States in the first six months of 2018, according to the international law firm Baker McKenzie . China has also gained financial control of the main port facilities of Athens, the Greek capital, and has injected itself into the European Union’s political debates through the strong links it has developed with needy Eastern European and Balkan countries.
Chinese purchases have focused on European companies working on artificial intelligence, software and data, robotics and other new technologies. Germany has become sufficiently concerned to begin restricting investment from Beijing on strategic grounds.
Once upon a pre-Trump time, this would have been a problem ripe for transatlantic cooperation. But Trump’s refusal to let reason instead of impulse direct his actions pushes away allies and the possibility of united action.