The U.S. foreign aid agency has indicated it will pump more resources into civil society and free media across Asia and the Pacific, while intensifying efforts to push China’s influence back across the globe.
- USAID is developing a new strategy to compete with Beijing in the Asia-Pacific region
- The agency’s senior adviser to China said the United States and Australia needed to “step up” their development efforts in the region
- He also said that USAID wanted to support workers’ groups and journalists
USAID’s senior adviser to China, Anka Lee, is in Canberra for talks with Australian officials as the agency develops a new strategy to compete with Beijing.
The Chinese government has plowed huge resources into infrastructure and major commercial projects in several parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and South Asia.
While the Biden administration has promised to meet this challenge and restore American influence, it has also opted out of several important trade agreements in the region, which could see its economic influence in Asia erode quickly.
But Mr Lee said aid and development were another crucial arena for strategic competition and that decisions made by donors such as the US and Australia could still shape the region in significant ways.
He said the United States and Australia needed to “step up” their development efforts in Asia and the Pacific, which he called “ground zero” in competition with China.
“The United States needs to be more present in the region and we want to work with our Australian allies and friends here to make sure we really offer what’s beneficial to our partners here,” he said.
Lee said a key focus would be to ensure that communities in the region are “resilient” and “able to protect and repel any influence or action by China (People’s Republic of China) that could harm their interests. “
While Australia remains by far the largest aid donor in the Pacific – and Chinese development aid has in fact fallen away in recent years – Beijing has still won credit from several Pacific island governments for its investments in key infrastructure projects.
The Security Pact, recently concluded by the Solomon Islands and China has also exacerbated concerns in Canberra about Beijing’s ability to woo political leaders across the region.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has raised its attacks on internal critics and civil society groups in his country since the news of the security agreement broke outand branded them anti-China “great men” manipulated by “foreign masters”.
Lee said the “elite capture” of China posed a sharp challenge to the United States and its allies in several regions.
He also said the United States needed to think “a little more carefully and clearly” about where it had a “comparative advantage” over China, and suggested that Washington could take more advantage of Australia’s “unifying power” in the Pacific. .
The new policy that USAID is developing identifies five categories of activities from China that Mr Lee said were “potentially very harmful” to the region and the US development agenda.
They included China, which “enables illiberal practices” in other countries through the export of telecommunications and surveillance technology, corrupts elites to achieve strategic gains, and uses its economic strength to silence its critics in other countries.
But Mr Lee also said that while the China strategy was crucial, it could not be the agency’s only organizing principle.
He also acknowledged that the United States could not “force countries to choose sides” between Washington and Beijing, and suggested that it would only arouse anger by presenting developing countries with a sharp binary choice.
“[Saying] it is either between us or China is not productive. “We need to focus more on our relationship, what we bring to our partner countries than their relationship with China,” he said.
“It’s ultimately about them.”