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What the U.S. Still Doesn’t Get About Countering China

Self-interest, not altruism, is driving Beijing to invest in the global south.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
From left to right, front to back row: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, Malawian President Arthur Peter Mutharika, Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio, and Liberian President George Weah attend a group photo session during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018.
From left to right, front to back row: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, Malawian President Arthur Peter Mutharika, Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio, and Liberian President George Weah attend a group photo session during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018.
From left to right, front to back row: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, Malawian President Arthur Peter Mutharika, Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio, and Liberian President George Weah attend a group photo session during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2018. HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images

Last week’s NATO summit in Madrid saved its conclusion for the announcement that many would see as its biggest takeaway: The Western military grouping would henceforth explicitly regard China as a “challenge” to an alliance that was founded with the superpower of another age, the Soviet Union, in mind.

A few days earlier in Germany, members of the G-7 announced that the United States and its European partners had decided to mobilize $600 billion to finance infrastructure development in Africa and other parts of the so-called developing world. The new vehicle unveiled for this purpose, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, received less attention than the week’s security news, but it too grew out of concern over China—namely, the West’s perceived need to compete with that country’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is sometimes claimed to be mobilizing trillions of dollars.

“This isn’t aid or charity,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the West’s still sketchy response, speaking at a resort in the Bavarian Alps. “It’s a chance for us to share our positive vision for the future … because when democracies demonstrate what we can do, all that we have to offer, I have no doubt that we’ll win the competition every time.”

Last week’s NATO summit in Madrid saved its conclusion for the announcement that many would see as its biggest takeaway: The Western military grouping would henceforth explicitly regard China as a “challenge” to an alliance that was founded with the superpower of another age, the Soviet Union, in mind.

A few days earlier in Germany, members of the G-7 announced that the United States and its European partners had decided to mobilize $600 billion to finance infrastructure development in Africa and other parts of the so-called developing world. The new vehicle unveiled for this purpose, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, received less attention than the week’s security news, but it too grew out of concern over China—namely, the West’s perceived need to compete with that country’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is sometimes claimed to be mobilizing trillions of dollars.

“This isn’t aid or charity,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the West’s still sketchy response, speaking at a resort in the Bavarian Alps. “It’s a chance for us to share our positive vision for the future … because when democracies demonstrate what we can do, all that we have to offer, I have no doubt that we’ll win the competition every time.”

With the political challenge of holding a united position toward Russia as stout as it is, many will view the idea of rolling out a meaningful common Western security response to China’s growing power and influence anytime soon as fanciful. Compared to neighboring Russia, China feels very distant to Europeans. As with most of the world, China’s emergence as a leading trading partner and source of investment makes Europeans wary of antagonizing it. Apart from providing moral and economic support to Russia, as long as Beijing does not directly threaten Europe—and there is little reason to expect it would—there will be little appetite in Europe for standing with the United States to mount a common defense.

Much more urgent yet even more deserving of skepticism is the need to bring rich Western countries in as major players in the financing of infrastructure and the provision of other international public goods to counter China. Here, one need not prognosticate, though, because the recent record is so full of empty promises and inaction.

As many said in expressing their doubt on social media in the wake of the G-7 announcement, the last decade-plus has seen repeated announcements like this one that have amounted to little more than vaporware. The most recent—dubbed “Build Back Better World”—came from Biden himself barely a year ago. Who can recall it today, and why should they? It achieved little more momentum than Biden’s domestic program that bore a variation of that same name.

While China has continued to expand and adapt its Belt and Road project, earlier iterations of the same basic Western idea have borne long-forgotten names, such as the Blue Dot Network—a 2019 initiative by the United States, Australia, and Japan—and the New Silk Road Initiative—a scheme promoted by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011, anticipating that historical metaphor about ancient trade routes two years before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature geopolitical undertaking saw the light of day.

It is the spirit behind this trail of Western futility that interests me most—and which desperately needs to be overcome—rather than the growing list of defunct names. This was captured well by Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who tweeted about the newest G-7 plan: “We’d get so much more mileage if we even pretended the initiative was to encourage development rather than to counter China.” To accept this would merely be the start of wisdom, though, for it is high time that the United States do more than merely pretend to care about global development.

The reasons for Washington’s inability to do so are given away in Biden’s statement and bound up in a wrongheaded and ahistorical understanding of the relationship between the West and the rest of the world, especially the so-called global south.

Biden’s emphasis on the new plan not being aid or charity was for domestic consumption; these are things the developing world is hardly holding its breath for. This ritualized and distinctly American trope recalls the era of former Sen. Jesse Helms, the segregationist North Carolina Republican who preceded Biden as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. Helms famously equated assistance to developing countries to pouring money down “foreign ratholes” and did everything he could to block it.

Attitudes like this were hardly the monopoly of old-line southern senators, though, and had been pushing U.S. foreign policy toward the developing world in an increasingly stingy and scornful direction since the years of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. They forced U.S. politicians of all stripes to disavow the notion of the United States as a provider of global public goods outside of its role as the securer of international order through military strength.

This was not only an undignified posture for the richest society in the history of the world, but it also exerted a slow but surely corrosive effect on U.S. power and influence globally—to the point where countless nations now look to China, still a country far less wealthy on a per capita basis than the United States, as the partner most likely able to help them achieve big things in the economic realm. The problem doesn’t end there though. The rhetorical line passed down to Biden both miscasts the history of the rich world’s relations with the global south and mis-prepares the United States for the world of the near future.

The wealth of the United States, Europe, and even Japan—along with other highly industrialized countries—is predicated on a starkly unequal international economic system and has been built on the poverty and limitation of opportunity for others.

For many decades now, the prosperous West has sourced essential commodities and natural resources from the world’s poor nations while enforcing its privilege through impediments to both trade and migration. These unequal relationships have even older roots in the centurieslong Atlantic slave trade, which took advantage of billions of hours of labor expropriated from people in bondage.

Alongside this, late in the slavery era, the West created corporations like Britain’s famous East India Company, which unloaded industrial goods, such as textiles, on poorer parts of the world while denying colonized people the right to export their products to Western markets—except when Western companies controlled that production and trade.

Today’s enormous global wealth disparities are rooted in these realities that have proven extremely resistant to change and are masked by a Western ideology that pretends that the successes of the rich are the pure result of long sacrifice, virtue, and ingenuity while encouraging fear and resentment of the less fortunate. Here, there is a vital but so far unseized opportunity for Biden and other U.S. politicians to learn something important from China.

Since former U.S. President Barack Obama, if not before, U.S. leaders and diplomats have been warning governments in the developing world not to reach out to the economic hand that Beijing extends to them, invoking supposed debt traps and other snares that will come from accepting the terms that China offers in constructing its own global economic networks.

What is new is that the developing world has more of an alternative to the West than any time in the recent past. Language out of Washington shows that U.S. leaders at least implicitly understand that China is not in the charity game either, but they fail to grasp a more important insight: China has gotten into the global public goods game with both feet during the last three decades for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, out of an understanding that the future of the international economy lies to a great extent in the global south.

This is where future global growth will occur. This is where a huge, coming change in global demographics will take place. This is where the trading partners, talented and energetic labor, and customers of the future will come from. Beijing understands that this is an opportunity for China—not some falsely construed charity operation and certainly not a rathole.

It is self-interest, not altruism, that is driving Beijing in this direction, and capitalists who believe in the wisdom and virtue of the market should understand as well as anyone that this is not a bad thing and should draw the proper conclusions. I write these words from a city called Lomé, the capital of the tiny West African country of Togo. Lomé sits close to the middle of one of the greatest ongoing human projects anywhere: the creation of a coastal region of dense urbanization that will stretch from Lagos, Nigeria, to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Tens of millions of people will live, work, and trade in this region by the middle of the century—a blink of an eye by historical standards. Signs of China are everywhere, in small businesses and big factories, road projects and airports, whereas signs of Europe mostly consist of vestiges of colonization and signs of the United States are few. Who will house all these people? Who will help create the power, water, sewage, and communications infrastructure as well as the schools, universities, and jobs?

The West is great at generating slogans and names for economic partnerships with acronyms that will be quickly forgotten, but in the meantime, because of its failure to change the way it thinks about the opportunity the global south represents to the West and the world, it risks seeing the future pass it by.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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