The nature of the China-US-Vietnam economic triangle

While addressing a joint press conference in Hanoi, after his summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, US President Donald Trump spoke not just about the Summit, but also the current state of US-China relations. Trump criticised his predecessors for not doing enough to address the trade imbalance with China, while also making the point that he was all for China’s economic progress and growth, but not at the cost of the US.

If one were to look beyond the Summit in terms of the US-Vietnam economic relations, top US companies – Boeing and General Electric – sealed some important deals.

Given the focus of Trump’s visit (which was the Summit with Kim), perhaps these deals did not draw the attention they ought to have. The fact is that the US has begun to recognise Vietnam’s economic potential, as well as its geopolitical significance in Asia. This long note will give a backgrounder to Vietnam’s economic growth story in recent years, highlight some of it’s key strategic relationships, and then examine the nature of the China-US-Vietnam economic triangle.

Vietnam’s growth story: The key reasons Continue reading

Nightcap

  1. Don’t believe the myth that this is a nation of Little Englanders Alex Massie, CapX
  2. The American Greatness narrative: a look under the hood Samuel Goldman, Law & Liberty
  3. In South Africa, minorities are at risk (even though it’s Not Yet Genocide) Mpiyakhe Dhlamini, Rational Standard
  4. Military dictatorship in Brazil: was it worth it? Bruno Gonçalves Rosi, NOL

How the United States can woo Africa away from China

On December 13, 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, highlighted the key aims and objectives of ‘Prosper Africa,’ which shall probably be announced at a later date. The emphasis of this policy, according to Bolton, would be on countering China’s exploitative economics unleashed by the Belt and Road Initiative, which leads to accumulation of massive debts and has been dubbed as ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. A report published by the Centre for Global Development (CGD) (2018) examined this phenomenon while looking at instances from Asia as well as Africa.

During the course of his speech, Bolton launched a scathing attack on China for its approach towards Africa. Said the American NSA:

bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.

Bolton, apart from attacking China, accused Russia of trying to buy votes at the United Nations through the sale of arms and energy.

Bolton also alluded to the need for US financial assistance to Africa being more efficient, so as to ensure effective utilization of American tax payer money.

The BUILD

It would be pertinent to point out that the Trump administration, while realizing increasing Chinese influence in Africa, set up the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation), which will facilitate US financing for infrastructural projects in emerging market economies (with an emphasis on Africa). IDFC has been allocated a substantial budget — $60 billion. In October 2018, Trump had signed the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) because he, along with many members of the administration, felt that the OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) was not working effectively and had failed to further US economic and strategic interests. Here it would be pertinent to mention that a number of US policy makers, as well as members of the strategic community, had been arguing for a fresh US policy towards Africa.

Two key features of IDFC which distinguish it from OPIC are, firstly, deals and loans can be provided in the local currency so as to defend investors from currency exchange risk. Second, investments in infrastructure projects in emerging markets can be made in debt and equity.

There is absolutely no doubt that some African countries have very high debts. Members of the Trump administration, including Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had also raised the red flag with regard to the pitfalls of China’s unsustainable economic policies and the ‘Debt Trap’.

According to Jubilee Debt Campaign, the total debt of Africa is well over $400 billion. Nearly 20 percent of external debt is owed to China. Three countries which face a serious threat of debt distress are Zambia, Republic of Congo, and Djibouti. The CGD report had also flagged the precarious economic situation of certain African countries such as Djibouti and Ethiopia.

US policy makers need to keep in mind a few points:

Firstly, Beijing has also made efforts to send out a message that BRI is not exploitative in nature, and that China was willing to address the concerns of African countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping, while delivering his key note address at the China-Africa Summit in September 2018, laid emphasis on the need for projects being beneficial for both sides, and expressed his country’s openness to course correction where necessary. While committing $60 billion assistance for Africa, the Chinese President laid emphasis on the need for a ‘win-win’ for both sides.

African countries themselves have not taken kindly to US references to debt caused as a result of China. While Bolton stated that Zambia’s debt is to the tune of $6 billion, an aide to the Zambian President contradicted the US NSA, stating that Zambia’s debt was a little over $3 billion.

At the China Zhejiang-Ethiopia Trade and Investment Symposium held in November 2018, Ethiopian State Minister of Foreign Affairs Aklilu Hailemichae made the point that Chinese investments in Ethiopia have helped in creating jobs and that the relationship between China and Ethiopia has been based on ‘mutual respect’. The Minister also expressed the view that Ethiopia would also benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative.

During the course of the Forum of China-Africa cooperation in September 2018, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had also disagreed with the assertion that China was indulging in predatory economics and this was leading to a ‘New Colonialism,’ as had been argued Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad during his visit to China in August 2018.

Washington DC needs to understand the fact that Beijing will always have an advantage given the fact that there are no strings attached to it’s financial assistance. To overcome this, it needs to have a cohesive strategy, and play to its strengths. Significantly, the US was ahead of China in terms of FDI in Africa in 2017 (US was invested in 130 projects as of 2017, while China was invested in 54 projects). Apart from this, Africa has also benefited from the AGOA program (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act), which grants 40 African countries duty free access to over 6000 products.

Yet, under Trump, the US adopts a transactionalist approach even towards serious foreign policy issues (the latest example being the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria) and there is no continuity and consistency.

US can explore joint partnership with allies

In such a situation, it would be tough to counter China, unless it joins hands with Japan, which has also managed to make impressive inroads into Africa, in terms of investments, and has also been providing financial assistance, though it is more cautious than China and has been closely watching the region’s increasing debts. Japan and India are already seeking to work jointly for promoting growth and connectivity in Africa through the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor. The US is working with Japan and India for promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, and can work with both countries for bolstering the ‘Prosper Africa’ project.

Perhaps, Trump should pay heed to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ (who will be quitting in February 2019) advice where he has spoken about the relevance of US alliances for promoting its own strategic interests.

There are of course those who argue that US should find common ground with China for the development of Africa, and not adopt a ‘zero-sum’ approach. In the past both sides have sought to work jointly.

Conclusion

African countries will ultimately see their own interests, mere criticism of China’s economic policies, and the BRI project, and indirectly questioning the judgment of African countries, does not make for strategic thinking on the part of the US. The key is to provide a feasible alternative to China, along with other US allies, or to find common ground with Beijing. Expecting nuance and a long term vision from the Trump Administration, however, is a tall order.

Afternoon Tea: “Independent Indians and the U.S.-Mexican War”

This cross-border conversation had a broad and tragic context. In the early 1830s, following what for most had been nearly two generations of imperfect peace, Comanches, Kiowas, Navajos, and several different tribes of Apaches dramatically increased their attacks upon northern Mexican settlements. While contexts and motivations varied widely, most of the escalating violence reflected Mexico’s declining military and diplomatic capabilities, as well as burgeoning markets for stolen livestock and captives. Indian men raided Mexican ranches, haciendas, and towns, killing or capturing the people they found there, and stealing or destroying animals and other property. When able, Mexicans responded by attacking their enemies with comparable cruelty and avarice. Raids expanded, breeding reprisals and deepening enmities, until the searing violence touched all or parts of nine states.

This is from Brian DeLay, a historian at Cal-Berkeley. Here is a link.

Eye Candy: the five largest cities in each American state, as constellations

Yup, you read that correctly. Behold:

NOL map 50 states constellations
Click here to zoom

RCH: America and Russia use to be friends

It’s true, and it’s the subject of my latest Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory. Check it out:

The two future superpower rivals had more in common than mere future greatness, though. Both were expanding rapidly, gobbling up huge swaths of territory at the expense of isolated polities like the Khiva Khanate and the Sioux confederacy, and hapless autocracies like Mexico and the Ottoman Empire. Russia and the United States also shared common foes – France and the U.K. – due mostly to the fact that American and Russian expansion was beginning to step on French and British toes. Both empires – one democratic, the other autocratic – also had looming labor crises that overshadowed everything they did in international affairs: slavery and serfdom.

Yes, I’m writing about the widely-ignored Crimean War. Please, read the rest, and don’t forget to tune in Friday for ten cool facts about the Crimean War!

RCH: The United States and the Middle East

My latest for RealClearHistory is all about ‘Murica and the Mideast. An excerpt:

2. The Iranian Regime. During the Cold War, the U.S. government supported a number of regimes that were illiberal in the name of fighting communism. The necessity of such tactics are beyond the scope of this article, but the Pahlavi “dynasty” of Persia was one such illiberal regime. The Pahlavis were anti-Communist and pro-Western, which meant that women could dress how they pleased and go to university, and that religion was pushed to the sidelines of political life. This made the Pahlavi’s enemies of not only the socialist reformers of Persia, but also the majority of the conservative religious clergy. One Pahlavi was ousted by a joint British-Soviet invasion in 1925, and his son was deposed in the 1979 revolution that turned Persia into Iran. After the British-Soviet invasion, the United States became heavily involved in Persia and supported the secular autocrat almost blindly, which is why the anti-Shah revolution of 1979 was also anti-American.

Please, read the rest.