Donald Trump’s inauguration is just a few days away, but the showdown Trump promised China is already well at hand. Throughout the campaign, the President-elect hammered home his points on Chinese currency manipulation and the dumping of excess steel in world markets, depressing prices and leaving American producers unable to compete. It was a message that rang true in the Rust Belt, whose states have hemorrhaged jobs as a result, and voters in the swing states that elected him are ecstatic to see Trump get a better deal with Beijing from Day One. After Obama’s failed “Pivot to Asia,” the President-elect is gearing up to give us a more muscular approach to dealing with the Chinese.
The sheer scale of the Obama foreign policy disaster in the Asia-Pacific becomes more painfully obvious with every passing week. Our long-standing allies in the region, the same people that are supposed to anchor Obama’s containment strategy, are making pivots of their own – to Beijing. The Philippines is the most extreme case: renegade president and occasional hitman Rodrigo Duterte, who sniffed out our spinelessness from the minute he took office, has turned his back on the United States without a second thought.
Even after an international court found in favor of Filipino claims in the South China Sea, Duterte has refused to press the issue for fear it will jeopardize the Philippines’ budding alliance with China. He also downplays the threat of China’s military build-up, choosing instead to direct his vitriol at the US for (meekly) criticizing his campaign of mass murder passed off as a “drug war.”
Even the region’s Western powers, like Australia, has become increasingly acquiescent to Chinese influence in their politics. Canberra has sleepwalked into a situation where Australian education, media, research institutions, and even political parties are financed by Chinese government money. The Australian government has also raised eyebrows by leasing part of Darwin port to a Chinese company suspected of having links to the People’s Liberation Army.
It isn’t just the Pacific where America is losing ground and allies to China. The same thing is happening, albeit with much less mainstream media attention, in Africa as well. Africa might not grab the same kind of headlines, but Trump and his incoming cabinet need to recognize the threat this poses to America’s geopolitical interests. As the questions they sent to the State Department show, the new administration is already well-aware that American companies are currently being outcompeted by the Chinese throughout the world’s second-largest continent. Then again, it only takes a quick look to see that things are going very badly for US interests there.
A Chinese-financed infrastructure boom is exploding across Africa – Chinese companies are profiting from building roads, railways, hospitals, and schools all over the continent. Beijing’s investment in Africa has been growing exponentially every year since the Clinton era. In 2014, the Chinese signed $68 billion in infrastructure deals. By 2025, that number will hit $1 trillion. China is now the continent’s largest trading partner, but there is more to than a simple quid pro quo at play. The reality is harsh but simple: Sino-African relations are growing past commercial ties to arm sales and permanent bases.
Already, Chinese military equipment is being used by more than two-thirds of African countries. Between 2011 and 2015, Chinese arms exports grew by 88 percent. A prime example of how the Chinese can feed local conflicts while carting off resources is in South Sudan, where the government is waging a vicious war against rebel groups using Chinese military hardware. That hardware, in turn, has been supplied in return for access to the impoverished country’s plentiful crude oil.
The biggest problem for the US military posture in Africa, though, is China’s newly established military base in the east African country of Djibouti. This tiny, arid, dictatorial country has practically nothing in the way of natural resources, but makes up for it with one of the world’s most strategic locations. For that reason, Djibouti plays host to the only permanent American base in Africa. From Djibouti, the US carries out drone operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia.
From its port, the US and several of our allies protect vital Red Sea shipping lanes from Somali pirates. Despite receiving massive rent payments from Washington, Djibouti’s dictator Ismail Omar Guelleh is now throwing open the doors to Chinese military equipment and personnel that will practically be sitting on top of their US counterparts. The Chinese are building their first overseas military base there, and they are doing it on land once leased by the US Army. The Chinese base will house 10,000 troops, compared to our diminished 4,000-man presence.
It’s easy to understand why Guelleh would show preference to the Chinese, even and perhaps especially at the expense of our interests. Beijing sweetened the deal with a $420 million port expansion, as well as two new airports and a railway line connecting Djibouti with Ethiopia. Even better, the Chinese are more than happy to turn a blind eye to the vicious political repression and human rights abuses Guelleh uses to his own desperately poor people in line. Guelleh and the other African leaders now welcoming the Chinese and undercutting us should take care, though. They are about to find out that thumbing your nose at the Trump White House won’t be the risk-free fun it was under Obama.
For all the snide comments the Washington elites have hurled at Donald Trump for his willingness to upset the foreign policy apple cart, Trump’s willingness to take China head-on is exactly what this country needs. To win this fight, Trump and his team need to keep the whole chessboard in mind: like the Soviets during the Cold War, the Chinese will exploit any and every opportunity to take over new markets and win over new allies at our expense. Fortunately, they can only succeed if we let them.