International visits by American officials in the Donald Trump era tend to be heavy on aggressive warnings and light on promises. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just wrapped up a five-nation tour of Europe and Central Asia during which China-bashing emerged as the only consistent theme.
But while Pompeo was keen to warn countries off cooperation with China, he offered few realistic alternatives to closer alignment with Beijing.
In the United States’ first cabinet-level visit to Central Asia in half a decade, Pompeo pledged (pending congressional approval) US$1 million of technical assistance to Uzbekistan in developing its capital markets. In the context of China-Central Asia relations, seven-figure sums are pocket change.
On his sweeping tour of the region after launching his now-famous Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed US$56 billion worth of deals in Central Asia.
The low figures associated with US economic diplomacy are announced with fanfare, but only serve to highlight the size of Chinese commitments. Last year, the US tried to counter China’s belt and road funding, raising the exposure cap of its development fund by US$30 billion – roughly half of Xi’s commitment to Central Asia alone.
While declining to step up to the plate, US officials frequently lambast countries for engaging with the Belt and Road Initiative, drawing on the language of “debt-trap diplomacy” to warn borrowers off Chinese credit.
In Latin America, Pompeo cautioned that China “injects corrosive capital into the economic bloodstream”, and in the Western Balkans, he warned against “China’s bribe-heavy strategy for infrastructure deals”.
While Chinese belt and road funding can genuinely be linked to corruption, poor environmental standards, and debt risk, US criticism of China, particularly given the lack of viable alternatives, only reinforces a popular characterisation of Western voices as patronising and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, many leaders in the Western Balkans and Africa see China as a partner that treats them like equals.
The US secretary of state did not visit the small, Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan on his trip, but President Donald Trump did place the country on his travel ban list while Pompeo was in the region. Kyrgyzstan is deeply dependent on China and is the kind of country straight out of the typical debt-trap narrative.
Anti-Chinese sentiment runs high in Kyrgyzstan and people there are generally clear-eyed about the risks of working with Beijing. In other words, they would welcome a US alternative to closer alignment with China. In the absence of a US-led offering, the poor, mountainous republic can only rely on Chinese debt for much-needed infrastructure plans.
US rhetoric on China not only distances target audiences, it fails to acknowledge basic economic and geographical realities. In praising the transparency and environmental standards of US companies while urging Kazakhstan to eschew cooperation with China, Pompeo optimistically overlooks the fact that Kazakhstan is several thousand kilometres from the US, while it shares a border of more than 1,000 km (621 miles) with China.
A similar disavowal of economic realities was on show in London. Pompeo landed not long after Britain defied US pressure to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei a role in building the country’s 5G network. Although Pompeo struck a softer tone once inside Downing Street, he insisted the Chinese Communist Party was the “central threat of our times”.
As the British government has acknowledged since it started dealing with Huawei in the early 2000s, Huawei is indeed a “high-risk vendor”. The nature of China’s political system, especially since the National Intelligence Law came into effect in 2017, means that the Communist Party can compel the cooperation of any Chinese actor.
Britain’s recent decision takes into account the risks associated with Huawei and mitigates them with a range of measures, including capping Huawei’s participation at 35 per cent.
Taking such risks is necessary because the 5G market is dominated by a handful of players. The affordability of Huawei equipment and the scarcity of alternatives makes it commercially impossible for British telecoms providers to roll out 5G without Huawei’s participation.
Just as Central Asia’s dependence on China is an unfortunate reality, so too is the participation of Huawei in the world’s 5G networks. This failure to acknowledge and respond to realities is at the heart of the US’ inability to effectively compete with China.
Chinese power is a fact of 21st-century geopolitics. The US does not seem to have woken up to this fact, but smaller countries, especially those neighbouring China, have long been cognisant of this reality. Threatened by the rise of Chinese power, many countries are desperately trying to redress the balance, and many would welcome more active US involvement.
In countries like Kazakhstan, where the US already has a strong record of investment, the opportunities are huge. But US foreign policy needs to realise that countries can no longer ignore China. Where it can offer alternatives to cooperation with China, it should. Action speaks louder than words, and it is certainly more effective than making empty, threatening noises.