This fall, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is slated to lead a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to China. The planned trip, like other recent visits to China by high-ranking U.S. officials, is aimed at improving the relationship between the U.S. and China.
Such efforts to ameliorate U.S.-China diplomatic relations come amid growing tensions between the two economic giants. They also run parallel to U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with Indo-Pacific countries to limit Beijing’s influence.
Take, for example, President Joe Biden’s September 2023 trips to India for the G20 summit and to Vietnam, where U.S. competition with China was a focus of Biden’s discussions. While he was in Asia, Biden made several agreements in science, technology and supply chain security designed to bolster U.S. relations with India and Vietnam.
“I don’t want to contain China,” the president told reporters in Hanoi on Sept. 10, 2023, shortly after meeting with Vietnam’s communist party leader.
U.S. Reps. Mike Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi echoed similar sentiments during an event held by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York City the following day.
But even if the U.S.’s stated goal isn’t to limit China’s global influence, its recent agreements with India, Vietnam and other countries may do exactly that.
The U.S. is actively looking for ways to blunt one of China’s best tools of influence: international loans.
During the G20 summit Sept. 9-10 in New Delhi, the U.S. pledged to help reform the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to make them more flexible in lending to developing countries to finance renewable energy, climate mitigation and critical infrastructure projects.
These plans are aimed at providing an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Commonly referred to as BRI, the initiative is China’s international infrastructure loan program. Over the past decade, Chinese government agencies, banks and businesses have loaned more than $1 trillion abroad, and 60% of the recipient countries are now in debt to these Chinese entities. The U.S. and other countries have long criticized BRI as “debt trap diplomacy.” One study suggests that the trillions of dollars in infrastructure loans to countries by the government and quasi-government bodies in China typically lead to debt problems that the borrowing countries can’t manage.
The telecommunications portion of a joint statement by Biden and [Indian PM] Modi specifically mentions the U.S.’s Rip and Replace program. It is about helping smaller telecommunications companies rip out technology from Chinese companies like Huawei or ZTE and replace them with network equipment from the West that will protect users’ data.
By inking these agreements at the G20 in India and in Vietnam, the U.S. broadened its circle of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific that can help counterbalance China.
Along with similar diplomatic accomplishments by Vice President Kamala Harris at the recent ASEAN summit in Indonesia; security partnerships like AUKUS, between the U.S., Australia and the UK, and the Quad, between the U.S., India, Australia and Japan; increased military sales and training to Taiwan; and the recent Camp David meeting Biden held with Japan and South Korea, the U.S. is building partnerships all across Asia.
These actions are aimed at restraining China’s political, economic and military might, even if U.S. leaders don’t explicitly say that is their intention. Regardless of rhetoric, actions speak louder than words.