Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Under Trump, the US Strategy for Countering China Is Mimicking China

The US has begun to copy questionable Chinese behaviors, from aggressive diplomatic criticism to forcing sell-offs and joint ventures.

Andreea Brînză
Under Trump, the US Strategy for Countering China Is Mimicking China
Credit: Official White House photo

More than 70 years ago, when the United States was facing the threat of Soviet Communism, George Kennan advised the U.S. to be the best it can be, in order to attract other countries into the democratic sphere and make democracy the most coveted political system. Today, the United States under Donald Trump seems happy to ignore that advice. It is engaged more and more in replicating the methods and propaganda of the Chinese government than in promoting democratic alternatives.

All started when, after years of criticizing the Belt and Road Initiative’s wave of Memoranda of Understating (MoUs), in 2019, the United States started its own wave of MoUs, but targeting Huawei (without explicitly mentioning it). Over the past year, the U.S. has signed this type of MoU with almost all the 17+1 countries (the 17+1 is a Chinese mechanism of dialogue between China and 17 countries from the Central and Eastern Europe). With every MoU signed, the United States scored a success in the CEE region – a region perceived by some American experts as being under Chinese influence. Even Serbia, a state sometimes described as a Chinese client state, recently joined the club. But, unlike the other CEE countries, Serbia didn’t sign the standard MoU targeting Huawei; instead a clause targeting “untrusted vendors” was added into an MoU signed between Serbia and Kosovo and mediated by the United States.

Above and beyond the MOUs, the United States has been copying China’s 17+1 mechanism through the Three Seas Initiative. While this forum was started as a regional initiative for 12 European Union countries between the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea, and the Black Sea, the U.S. has been more and more involved since 2017. As of late, Washington has even begun to promote the initiative as an alternative to China’s 17+1. In a letter to Albania’s prime minister, Donald Trump said very bluntly that “I am also pleased by Albania’s strong role in the Three Seas Initiative – a transparent, market-based, and fair alternative to China’s 17+1 format, which I urge you to exit.” Keep in mind that Albania is not in the Three Seas Initiative, as it is not an EU member state. It seems the United States is eager to replicate China’s 17+1 blunder.

In the meantime, at the geoeconomic level, the United States under Donald Trump started assimilating Chinese behaviors too. One of the first visible steps was taken when Trump forced Google, Intel, and other U.S. and non-U.S. tech companies to go against demand, contracts, and the free market and stop selling products to Huawei. In other words, the Trump administration used these American private companies in the same way it is afraid China would use Huawei and other Chinese companies: as tools to advance the government’s interests and gain geopolitical advantages.

TikTok is another example. Forcing the selling of a private company seems more at home in a communist country than a capitalist one. In China, where the capitalist economy is controlled by a communist government, foreign companies are forced to establish a joint venture with a Chinese company, which might also involve a transfer of technology and know-how. This is unequal treatment, something that the EU and the U.S. have always criticized China for. In the European Union and the United States, Chinese companies weren’t caged by this type of restriction and were rather free to enter the market and invest – until Donald Trump came to power. Today, it is the U.S. that asked a Chinese company to establish something similar to a joint venture with a U.S. company in order to remain on the American market, and it is China that fears the U.S. could steal Chinese intellectual property as a result. To be more precise, among other concerns, Beijing is also worried about who controls the TikTok algorithm, which is important for its role in recommendations.

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The Case of Romania

But one of the most stringent U.S. emulations of Chinese practices has been happening, largely unnoticed, in Romania, which has become one of the U.S.-China diplomatic and economic battlegrounds.

For one thing, the U.S. ambassador to Romania is mastering the Chinese style of propaganda discourse. In one of his first public interviews, in 2019, he emphasized the need “to make Romania great again.” He later wrote an anti-Huawei op-ed where, apart from obsessively using the word “communist” (for example: “There is no place for crooked communist Chinese companies in a free and democratic Romania”), he tried to be metaphoric without much meaning or contextual logic – “Romania can embrace the 5G revolution while avoiding the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” In the same article in which he quoted Secretary of Defense Mark Esper saying that using Huawei 5G equipment “could also jeopardize our intelligence and communication-sharing capabilities,” he criticized China and Huawei by saying that “when the propagandist’s false trade war narrative fails, they draw yet another card from the over-played communist deck — they threaten.” It seems two can draw from that deck.

But the climax of U.S. propaganda in Romania wasn’t yet achieved. At the beginning of October, while accompanying a Romanian governmental delegation to Washington, the U.S. ambassador announced that the United States and Romania will sign an “Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement for the refurbishment of one nuclear reactor and the building of two new reactors at the Cernavoda nuclear facility in Romania. This $8 billion project will be a paradigm for future Romanian-American economic and energy development projects.” He then continued by presenting another MoU with the U.S. EXIM Bank “for the financing of the Cernavoda nuclear project and other projects in Romania.” The Romanian media took the U.S. ambassador’s words for granted, announcing that the United States will invest billions of dollar in constructing two new reactors at Cernavoda.

But this was just a PR stunt, or, to be blunt, even fake news, though combating fake news coming from Russia and China is at the top of the U.S. ambassador’s agenda. In fact, what Romania signed was a bureaucratic procedure that “will lay the foundation for Romania to utilize U.S. expertise and technology with a multinational team building reactor Units 3 and 4 of the Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant and refurbishing reactor Unit 1.” It is simply the first step a country should take to enable the acquisition of U.S. nuclear technology and expertise. Moreover, the U.S. EXIM Bank MoU is not an investment and not even a concrete loan for Cernavoda, but a credit line for “the development of energy projects — including nuclear and liquefied natural gas and infrastructure projects — road, rail, bunkering stations,” only if they are bought from American companies.

In Romania, dozens of bombastic news headlines that praised and cheered U.S. involvement in building and financing the two reactors of Cernavoda generated enthusiasm among the Romanian public. Seven years ago, when China first got involved in Cernavoda and promised an investment, not a loan, of $8 billion, there was similar enthusiasm, even though the deal got stuck in endless negotiations and, in the end, was abandoned this year. The U.S. PR victory wasn’t just because it succeeded in replacing China General Nuclear Power at Cernavoda, but also because it sold the above agreements as concrete projects. Yet the Chinese experience shows that initial enthusiasm can transform into disappointment if proposed projects don’t become reality.

Even though the U.S. and Romania governments promoted mere formalities and expressions of interest as concrete investments, the U.S. ambassador to Romania didn’t stop here. He even announced in the same bombastic style that the United States is “now embarking on a new project for Romania, with Poland, to build a highway and railroad from Constanța on the Black Sea to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea.” This too is a flashback to 2013 when, after the then-16+1 summit in Bucharest, Romania and China also announced, among the dozen projects that never came to life, a fanciful proposal for a high-speed railway connecting the Port of Constanța with the country’s western border. But none of these plans materialized and disappointment with China accumulated day by day.

The highway that the U.S. ambassador was mentioning is a Three Seas Initiative proposal, “Via Carpathia,” which was initially planned to connect Lithuania with Greece, but he seems to have mixed it up with a separate railway route, Rail2Sea, that would connect Gdansk (Poland) with Constanța (Romania). If one would already have doubts about how and why the United States would build two nuclear reactors in Romania, when a similar project in the U.S. failed and renewables are becoming ever cheaper, it is even more difficult to understand why EU member states would want U.S. loans to build highways and railways when they can already access non-reimbursable EU funds.

And this leads to another problematic U.S. emulation of Chinese behavior. Washington has frequently criticized Chinese loans for infrastructure projects because they aren’t market-driven, don’t make economic sense, and risk saddling contracting countries with unsustainable debt. A Romanian fund that is a minority shareholder in the owner of Cernavoda and is managed by the American company Franklin Templeton has consistently opposed the building of two new reactors because they don’t make economic sense. If the United States ends up ignoring free market principles and starts copying Chinese loans to foreign countries just to counter China, it will simply perpetuate economic problems and risk creating its own debt traps.

Putting together all these diplomatic and economic maneuvers and adding a very aggressive anti-China communication strategy, which has been implemented at all levels of the U.S. government and even in foreign embassies, alongside permanent praise of the supreme leader, we can say that the United States, under Donald Trump, is mimicking China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Could this be called Rambo diplomacy?

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Over the past four years, instead of trying to be the best country and democracy it can be, the United States under Trump has begun to copy Chinese behaviors, from aggressive diplomatic criticism to forcing sell-offs and joint ventures. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that Trump has expressed his admiration for Xi Jinping and his political standing multiple times. But copying China will not help the U.S. win a victory in a long confrontation in which it lacks a strategy. The U.S. won the Cold War because it was different from the Soviet Union, not because it mimicked its actions, policies, and style. If Washington wants to succeed against China, it must again try to be the best country it can be and stop imitating the behaviors it has criticized for years.

Andreea Brînză is the vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP), where she analyzes the geopolitics of China with a focus on the Belt and Road Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @Andreebrin