Washington must restore its leadership of the global economic order

Britain’s recent announcement that it is participating in a tripartite arrangement with the United States and Australia to develop and produce nuclear submarines for the Australian Navy and to deepen three-way cooperation in high-technology development is but one facet of London’s increasingly strong pushback against Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and in recent weeks against Taiwan. This week the British Foreign Office said its investment arm, the CDC Group, will partner with DP World, a logistics company based in Dubai and owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to invest $1.3 billion to upgrade ports in Egypt, Senegal and Somaliland.

British officials say the initiative is intended to counteract “malign actors” in Africa. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been somewhat more discreet about the fact that China is the target, asserting that the three projects will provide “reliable and honest investment in developing countries.” But her meaning could not be more clear. China long has conducted predatory lending practices to exploit the countries in which it has invested. In particular, it has capitalized upon their inability to meet payment terms to pressure them into hosting its military, notably its maritime forces, at their ports and bases, as well as demanding their support for its policies in international institutions such as the United Nations.

In contrast to Britain’s unmistakable intent, DP World’s participation in the joint venture is considerably more complicated. The UAE maintains excellent — and growing — economic relations with China. The UAE is China’s most important trading partner in the Arab world, responsible for 28 percent of total non-oil trade between China and the region. Moreover, Dubai is the focus of much of that trade; China is Dubai’s largest trading partner. That the UAE nevertheless has been willing to participate in a venture clearly aimed at reducing Chinese influence in Africa — a step certain to anger Beijing — indicates that the Emirates may be starting to hedge on its own ties with Beijing.

It is widely understood that America’s military deterrent critically depends on allied and partner support to a far greater degree than was the case in the past. America’s force structure, and the budget upon which it depends, is simply insufficient to deter not only its so-called “peer competitors” — China and Russia — but also ongoing threats from Iran, North Korea and terrorists. It can do so only with allied and partner support. Yet there is no denying that many of America’s allies and partners, not only those in Europe that also belong to the European Union but also those in East Asia, are exceedingly reluctant to subordinate their economic interests vis-à-vis China to the security challenges that Beijing poses.

Indeed, China continues to expand its economic influence, notably its participation in the November 2020 ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, which includes Australia, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, and represents the world’s largest free-trade area. America needs to offer countervailing economic initiatives that would reduce Beijing’s economic and political influence among its allies and friends.

However, Washington thus far has failed to outline a comprehensive investment policy to counteract China, as Britain has now done. It also has yet to take any steps to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was created after Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Similarly, Washington has not indicated whether it would resume negotiations with the EU to create a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) that Trump likewise had suspended (in effect, terminating it). In both cases, were Washington successfully to negotiate the T-TIP and to join the CPTPP, it would further strengthen America’s economic ties with its allies and partners and reduce China’s impact on economies and the resulting influence on their policies.

Washington’s allies, partners, friends and adversaries increasingly have questioned whether America is willing and able to maintain its longstanding leadership of the global order that it created almost single-handedly after World War II. It therefore must not only initiate but also execute a policy that signals its determination to maintain that global order — and to revitalize and strengthen it as well.

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