CAPE TOWN – US President Donald Trump has, predictably, used his first few days in office to cast himself (and the United States) as a proverbial sun around which every other country orbits. His expansive agenda of re-crafting NATO, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, revising (or even eliminating) the North American Free Trade Agreement, and undermining the One-China policy all have one thing in common: his belief that the US can control the world’s political and economic destiny. Reality, unlike Trump’s scripted TV show, will almost certainly prove him wrong.
The “America first” policy that Trump emphasized in his inaugural address may sound pleasing to frustrated voters in Iowa and Idaho – the overlooked and ignored who now feel vindicated by “their” victory. But it may sound most pleasing of all in a China intent on nurturing its own substantial gravitational force.
Indeed, China’s rise has provided a new orbit for many countries around the world – particularly developing and emerging economies. And indeed, China’s exceptional diplomatic skill across the African continent (and, increasingly, Southeast Asia) has made it an alternative hegemonic force – one that comes without the West’s colonial baggage or moralizing about democracy and human rights.
Trump’s presidency provides China with new opportunities to cement its role as a provider of investment and all manner of infrastructure and assistance to a host of countries eager to develop. His unilateralist approach is likely to force the US into playing catch-up with a China left almost unfettered in its continued efforts to win over the hearts and minds of those whose countries it views as vital, economically and politically, to its strategic interests.