'America First' gives China too much elbow room in emerging markets

'America First' gives China too much elbow room in emerging markets
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While the rhetoric of the Trump administration’s America First Policy has been squarely aimed at Mexico and China, the implications of this policy agenda in developing and emerging markets are far-reaching in terms of economic, strategic and political consequences for the United States.

Not only are emerging and developing economies poised to capture the lion share of global growth over the next two decades, but China among others have already positioned themselves to capture growth in these markets, with a particular focus in Africa.

Reduced influence and lack of engagement in Africa

The current administration’s America First policy has created vacuums — geopolitically, economically, and militarily — by undercutting U.S. diplomatic capacity and withdrawal from major global and trade agreements. China and other countries have been quick to fill the voids.

Not only is China growing its influence in the Asia-Pacific, but China is also strategically growing its use of soft power in other fast-growing markets — namely African economies.

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China continues to grow its lead as Africa’s biggest economic partner. Total goods trade between China and Africa tallied $188 billion in 2015 — more than triple that of India, Africa’s next-biggest trade partner. Contrast this with the U.S. figure for bilateral trade that has declined significantly over the past several years from a high of $125 billion in 2011 to a meager $53 billion in 2015.

Fast growing emerging and frontier markets in Africa are becoming beacons for developed world businesses seeking expansion opportunities, and for investors searching for greater returns than developed economies will offer. By 2034, the African continent will have a working-age population of 1.1 billion — larger than any other continent. When coupled with significant increases in personal income, the world’s economic center of gravity will shift from the more mature, developed markets toward the developing ones.

The reality, however, is not that the U.S. is being edged out in Africa, but it is actively ceding opportunities to other countries that have grown their engagement from foreign aid-centric to incorporate a strong commercial component.

African citizens and their governments are looking beyond what partners have traditionally offered in the form of foreign aid, military assistance, or commodity-based investment (and extraction). Instead, they are asking for partners that will help them capture potential growth by supporting economic diversification, innovation for and at home, and integration into the global economy.

Leaving it to others to establish the “rules to the game” within fast-growing markets will not only diminish economic growth and opportunity for the U.S.; it is also likely to have far reaching repercussions for transparency, fair competition, not to mention the development of democratic institutions, and even democracy, in these regions.

A “launch pad” for both U.S. economic and strategic benefit

If foreign aid was more directly linked to strategic interests in the private sector, U.S. public resources could be leveraged by private ones. This has been done effectively, for example, through the Power Africa Initiative developed under the Obama administration.

However, American companies are more typically at a disadvantage because of our government’s reluctance to foster cooperation between American businesses and American aid. This hesitancy undercuts U.S. strategic interests, handicaps our export and investment potential, risks reliable access to natural resources, and diminishes our country’s potential to engage economically with rapidly expanding regions around the globe.

By establishing a U.S. Development Bank that provides financing and risk mitigation support to the private sector for investments that promote development, the U.S. could demonstrate its leadership on how business and foreign assistance can work in concert. It would also make U.S.  foreign assistance efforts much more cost-effective, by using public resources to catalyze mutually-beneficial private sector investment.

In a step further, it would not only leverage the standards and practices that U.S. companies and investors require for engagement, but the innovation and technologies, business expertise and knowledge transfer that they can bring directly to these markets. Such a private sector-led growth agenda answers African governments’ appeals for value-add investment and directly supports efforts to sustain poverty-alleviating growth, build local capacities, and enhance sophistication of local economies, companies, and entrepreneurial activity.  

If the U.S. isn’t careful, “America first” could mean “American last” in emerging markets. If the U.S. wants to maintain influence and capture economic opportunities for its citizens through trade and investment, it will need to transform its current approaches to commercial engagement and foreign assistance. This would give the U.S. more freedom to innovate around how business and foreign assistance can work in concert to achieve mutually-beneficial economic growth and stability.

Dale Mathias is a life member of the Council for Foreign Relations. For 25 years she has had a career in finance and private investments. Mathias now invests in early stage companies in both the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa.