6 October 2018

Did Trump Just Announce a New ‘Aid War’ With China at the U.N.?

Richard Gowan

Was Donald Trump nasty or nice at the United Nations last week?

The answer may depend on whether you listened to his comments from Beijing or Tehran.

Diplomatic observers expected the American president to look tough at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. Many predicted that he would strike an especially aggressive tone toward Iran. He didn’t disappoint them, using his U.N. appearance to celebrate his withdrawal from the “horrible” Iranian nuclear deal and attack Tehran’s “agenda of aggression and expansion” in the Middle East. 

Yet there was something formulaic about his rhetoric, and he made no startlingly new threats against the Islamic Republic.

The president even tweeted that he might be open to meeting his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, “someday,” calling him an “absolutely lovely” man. Diplomats recall how Trump belittled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” at the 2017 General Assembly, only to try to forge a personal bond with Kim this year. Many wonder if Trump will try a similar routine with Rouhani.

At a minimum, Trump seemed more irritated than angered by Iran last week. He sat through a Security Council session at which U.S. allies stood up for the nuclear deal. He did not rebuke them. This may simply be because Trump and his advisers do not take the Security Council especially seriously. But it may also be because the president has bigger diplomatic fish to fry.

The most worrying aspects of Trump’s performance at the U.N. did not concern war and peace. Instead they centered on trade and aid. Three points of concern stood out. First, the president seems keen to make his trade war with China a defining issue of his term. Second, he may be willing to take down the international trading system in pursuit of this goal. Third, he is liable to subordinate U.S. development policy to this broader strategy, damaging poor nations.

Sino-American relations were worsening sharply as Trump arrived at the U.N. In recent weeks, the U.S. has slapped new trade tariffs on Beijing and also announced sanctions in response to Chinese purchases of Russian weaponry. Trump tried to minimize tensions by referencing his good personal ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But he proceeded to emphasize the two countries’ “trade imbalance,” blaming it on “China’s trade distortions and the way they deal,” before warning the Security Council that Beijing is trying to interfere in the upcoming U.S. midterm congressional elections.

By the time the president spoke to the press on Wednesday night, he was joking that his friendship with Xi might be over. It seems clear that Trump plans to frame the last weeks of the midterm campaign, and perhaps the remainder of his first term, as a struggle to defend American voters from Chinese predations. Whatever the electoral benefits of this strategy, which is likely to get rather lost in the current Supreme Court nomination battle, it will have diplomatic ramifications.

The U.S. now risks upsetting international cooperation over trade and aid in a struggle to gain advantage over China.

Some of the most serious of these relate to the World Trade Organization. The president has consistently argued that the WTO is unfair to the U.S. and even mused about withdrawing from it. If he were ever to follow through on this, the impact on the wider international system would be severe. Other governments have grumbled over U.S. decisions to exit bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO. But in truth, these are “nice to have” multilateral institutions rather than “must have” mechanisms that underpin the global system. The WTO is a “must have” body.

Although Trump did not openly threaten to quit the WTO in New York, he talked up the “dire need of change” to penalize countries—and specifically, China—that abuse WTO rules and cost American jobs. Even if the U.S. refrains from pulling out of the WTO, it has the ability to severely complicate its work. And if it uses the organization as a multilateral battleground for its strategic competition with China, it will harm other states’ faith in global cooperation overall.

These tensions are especially likely to affect international development policy. Many U.S. politicians believe that they are involved not only in a trade war with China, but an aid war too. 

Western officials have long been critical of China’s expanding aid presence, claiming that Beijing overlooks human rights and other concerns in search of a fast buck. As I noted last week, China has also been working hard to persuade U.N. bodies to endorse its aid policies, annoying the U.S. 

U.S. officials are now pushing a $60 billion fund to roll back growing Chinese economic influence in the developing world. Trump told the General Assembly of a new aid review to “examine what is working, what is not working, and whether countries that receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.” The chances that this will turn into a study of whether developing countries are more pro-American or pro-Chinese are reasonably high. 

Such a process could puncture one of the few remaining notions about international cooperation that tie the U.N. together: that everyone believes in aid and development. In 2015, the General Assembly unanimously approved the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as a framework for guiding aid programming up to 2030. These include ambitious pledges to eradicate extreme poverty. In a period in which the U.N. has been stumbling dreadfully over security crises like the Syrian war, this consensus over aid looked like a way to keep a sense of common interests alive.

Trump is clearly not moved by such ideas. He told the General Assembly that he would like to focus aid on those who “respect” America. His administration has already slashed funds for the Palestinians. The U.S. now risks upsetting international cooperation over trade and aid in a struggle to gain advantage over China. These may be even greater threats to the international system than a conflict with Iran and will create concern in capitals well beyond Beijing.

No comments: