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Foreign Policy

Geopolitics in Disguise

Aug 13, 2023
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

As a diplomat in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in the mid-1990s, I remember a time when the United States was more relaxed about the island. The U.S. ambassador in the country had time to cover a number of other island countries in the South Pacific, and visits by high-level U.S. officials to the country were as rare as the sightings of birds of paradise in the capital.

Some 30 years on, things have changed dramatically. PNG has become a hot spot for American diplomacy — and for military ties. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Port Moresby for President Joe Biden. That was followed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in July, who became the first Pentagon chief to visit. Elsewhere in the South Pacific, the unprecedented U.S. offensive was evident. In the Solomon Islands, for example, apart from a series of high-level visits — including one by Vice President Kamala Harris — the U.S. embassy reopened last year after being shuttered for three decades.

In Vanuatu and Kiribati, Washington is holding talks to open a chancery in each country. As part of a drive to build its influence across the region, the White House launched Blue Pacific Partnerships in September and is preparing a second U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit for later this year. The first was held in September.

Washington’s new embrace of the once-neglected South Pacific island countries is the epitome of its policy shift on the global south. From Africa to Asia to South America, Washington is once again engaging developing countries after discovering the merits of doing so. “America is back,” Biden has declared on numerous occasions, and this comes with various economic initiatives for the developing world, such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.

When the U.S. emerged as the victor at end of the Cold War, it believed that a unipolar world would exist forever. Seeing little value in engaging poor countries, it withdrew from much of the global south to focus on its own priorities. In the South Pacific, for example, it closed a number of embassies and substantially cut official aid.

Its renewed interest in the global south is largely driven by Washington’s desire to counter what it sees as Beijing’s growing clout. China has been hard at work to develop closer economic and commercial ties in a bid to build a shared future for mankind. Consequently, trade between China and other developing countries has flourished, and Chinese investment in other developing countries has multiplied. All this has caused serious concerns in Washington.

Washington identifies China as its foremost adversary. Out of its zero-sum mentality, it sees the close ties between China and other developing countries as evidence of the country’s growing clout, which the U.S. sees as a threat to its global hegemony. Undermining such ties, therefore, tops Washington’s agenda.

Over the years, Washington has spared no effort in targeting China’s trade and economic relations with other developing countries. One notable case is its vicious attack on China’s signature project: the Belt and Road Initiative. To its credit, the BRI has driven investment of approximately $1 trillion in infrastructure development and lifted nearly 40 million people out of poverty in other developing countries. As a result, it has been winning hearts and minds in the developing world.

The Biden administration’s Build Back Better World, launched in June 2021 as an alternative to China’s initiative, was a tacit acknowledgement of the BRI’s success and popularity. However, to discourage poor countries from accessing and benefiting from the BRI, Washington frames it as a “debt trap.” It would be unconscionable for anybody to stop others from trying to put out his neighbor’s house fire because he is concerned that his neighbor would befriend the benefactors. In a similar fashion, Washington’s labeling demonstrates its lack of sensitivity and morality.

More than 150 countries and 32 international organizations have signed up for the BRI, and Washington’s attack on them is a way of saying they have poor judgment and foresight. It’s nothing short of an insult to the intelligence of billions of people and their governments. Moreover, it bears witness once more to Washington’s perceived sense of its own superiority.

Washington’s return to the developing world would probably do more harm than good. The White House views developing countries through the prism of the U.S.-China contest. Contrary to all of America’s protestations, its pivot was not motivated by a desire to improve the lot of poor countries. All that matters to Washington are its geopolitical objectives.

For this reason, America’s renewed interest in the global south only works to complicate the cooperation between China and other developing countries. In its obsession with beating China, Washington does everything possible to sabotage China’s ties with its southern cousins, including sowing division among them and creating obstacles to the flow of goods, capital and people.

Just days ago, the U.S. was reported to have raised concerns with the government of the Philippines over the involvement of a Chinese company in reclamation projects on Manila Bay’s shores. Washington had blacklisted the company. Such interference by Washington could cause contracts and projects involving China to be delayed or even canceled.

Moreover, Washington’s interference places developing countries at risk of being victimized by U.S. geopolitical objectives. For example, America’s China-containment strategy needs to build a broad alliance to have any chance of success. To this end, it entices or pressures developing countries to join its anti-China coalition, pushing them onto a collision course with China.

Developing countries lose out also because of the Biden administration’s ambitions to promulgate American values and standards through increased engagement with them. Washington seeks to include labor commitments and environmental standards in any trade agreements it enters with other countries in the race to the top, according to U.S. Trade Representative Catherine Tai. However, in reality, the players are set at different starting lines. While America is already at the top of the mountain, developing countries are still at its foot. Clearly, developing countries are bound to be beaten in the race. Enforcement of U.S. labor or environmental standards in the developing world will surely stifle the competitive advantage of developing countries.

On the other hand, Washington’s heightened interest in the global south is not expected to deliver substantial concrete economic benefits to developing countries. Tai touted an “unapologetically positive vision” for trade that puts American workers at its core. In line with this, the Biden administration refuses to provide improved access to its market — the outcome many developing countries want most from any trade deals with the United States.

Instead, Washington is paying lip-service to its commitment to its ballyhooed shared prosperity. It promised to raise $200 billion over five years under the U.S.-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment scheme. However, only a small portion of the total is expected to come from the U.S. government. The bulk of the financing will have to flow from the private sector, which is far from certain. As a result, the PGII would most likely suffer the same fate as Barack Obama’s Powering Africa program. The $600 million in economic aid Washington pledged to South Pacific island countries in September is still up in the air, awaiting congressional action. Meanwhile, “the economics of the IPEF are kind of buried,” according to David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. 

None of this is surprising, though. After all, Washington’s increased economic engagement with the global south is, for all intents and purpose, to serve U.S. geopolitical objectives rather than to help poor countries prosper.

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