After the downfall of Robert Mugabe following an intra-party coup weeks back, the U.S. State Department said the expected things. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put out a brief statement congratulating Zimbabweans on their country’s “historic moment” and calling on leaders to maintain “constitutional and civilian order.” Department spokesperson Heather Nauert fended off questions about whether the U.S. considered the event a “coup”—by law, doing so would require the U.S. to withhold aid to the country’s new leaders. The White House hasn’t said anything at all about Mugabe’s ousting.
But what’s striking is that following the overthrow of a leader who’s been a focus of U.S. ire for decades—he was on a short list of heads of state personally targeted by U.S. sanctions along with Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, and Nicholas Maduro—no one in the rest of the world seemed very interested in what America had to say about it.
Rather, the attention was all on Beijing. China is Zimbabwe’s largest source of foreign investment and purchaser of its raw materials. State-owned Chinese firms have developed much of the country’s recent infrastructure projects, including a new Parliament building. China has expanded its diplomatic presence in Zimbabwe at a time when Western governments have scaled back. President Xi Jinping visited the country in 2015, and Mugabe went to Beijing last year. As Chatham House analyst Alex Childs writes for the BBC, “In public, the Chinese leader said his country is willing to encourage capable companies to invest in Zimbabwe. But in private, the message was that there would be no more loans until Zimbabwe stabilised its economy.”
Some officials and experts even suspect that China itself was behind the coup, or at least knew something about it in advance, given that military chief Constantino Chiwenga visited Beijing shortly before launching it. While not confirmed, this itself seems significant—I can remember a time when if an anti-America leader was overthrown somewhere in the developing world, everyone assumed Washington was behind it.
Zimbabwe is just one of the many countries where China has significant and growing economic influence. Beijing has recently begun to massively expand its investments in infrastructure projects overseas though the One Belt, One Road initiative, a startlingly ambitious program of loans and acquisitions in 68 countries so far.
The conventional wisdom has long been that China is happy to do business in any country that can help its economic rise and that it isn’t too concerned about the nature of the regimes it deals with. This is either a boon to the world’s autocrats or a welcome departure from U.S.-style meddling, depending on whom you ask. But China is also sometimes willing to meddle when—as in the case of Mugabe—its partners’ internal strife gets in the way of business. Another example could be China’s recent offer to mediate between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the Rohingya crisis—which shortly preceded a tentative agreement between the two countries. China has been criticized by human rights groups for backing Myanmar’s government amid accusations of ethnic cleansing, or even genocide, and has blocked statements condemning the country at the United Nations. In fairness, Tillerson recently visited Myanmar as well, belatedly condemning the treatment of the Rohingya.
The Financial Times published an investigation last month on the increasing influence, under Xi, of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, whose “broad aims are to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information.” This can include anything from exerting control of overseas Chinese student associations to the dispute over the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The FT also reported today that EU leaders are increasingly concerned that Eastern European governments, feeling spurned by Brussels over refugee resettlement and other issues, are cementing ties with China.
It’s not surprising that, as its economic and military influence grows, China is also looking to build its “soft power,” but it’s striking to see such developments at a time when the U.S. seems intent on undermining its own. The New York Times reported last week on the “broken and increasingly contentious relationship between Mr. Tillerson and much of his department’s work force.” As Tillerson has seemed to be focused far more on downsizing and streamlining the department than on any diplomatic priorities, Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations raising concern about “the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January.” The department recently began offering buyouts to staff in order to hasten the downsizing of the department’s workforce. The White House has also proposed dramatic funding cuts to foreign aid.
There’s nothing wrong with efficiency or streamlining, but combined with the ongoing vacancies in key diplomatic posts and foreign policy positions in Washington, this looks more like a deliberate hollowing out of America’s diplomatic power. It’s a retreat from the world far more dramatic than the one President Obama was accused by his critics of leading for eight years.
Trump clearly sees American influence in the world more in terms of his own ability to cut deals with other heads of state rather than sustained diplomatic influence. The only problem is that, in part because of his own belligerence and unpredictability, other leaders don’t seem that interested in cutting one-on-one deals with him. When the U.S. does take on a major initiative, such countering Iranian influence in the Middle East, it’s hamstrung by a lack of diplomatic and political engagement, and allies—like Saudi Arabia this month—are led into dangerous miscalculations by the mixed signals coming out of Washington.
Meanwhile, on issues ranging from climate change to trade to the war in Syria, the world’s governments are moving on without the U.S.—and China has been more than happy to portray itself as a defender of the liberal world order, incongruous as that might seem.
It’s not quite true, of course, to say that the U.S. is retreating from the world under Trump. America’s military footprint in the Middle East continues to expand, and troop commitments are growing from Afghanistan to Somalia to Niger.
What’s taking shape is a strange and alarming situation, one in which the most powerful autocratic country approaches the world with investment and diplomacy, and the most powerful democratic country does so with special forces and drones. That doesn’t seem like a recipe for prosperity, peace, or stability.