'America First' in the Middle East is Helping China and Killing Turkey

Published August 15th, 2018 - 01:18 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)



  • Trump has slapped tariffs on both Turkish and Chinese imports.
  • These measures may simply push China and Turkey to rely less on the U.S. 
  • Trump is furthering an isolationist economic agenda, which may hurt American interests abroad.
  • China may be accelerating its Belt and Road Initiative as a result.


By Ty Joplin


U.S. President Donald Trump does not like China. He’s made this clear for decades and millions of Americans, equally as skeptical of growing Chinese influence in the globe, hoped he could compete against it with an ‘America First’ economic approach.

His ongoing trade war with China and recent decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Turkey certainly seem to promote the idea that Trump is crusading against those that seek to exploit the U.S.

But experts are warning that Trump’s idea of protecting American interests is backfiring in the Middle East, where both Turkey and China are looking to gain long-term footholds in the wake of a Trump-led retreat from the region. His trade wars look to simply accelerate that trend.

In trying to disempower Turkey and China, Trump may simply be facilitating a tectonic shift in the region that sees more Turkish, Russia and Chinese influence and far less input by the U.S. as more economies seek out other development partners.


Trump, China and the Middle East

Trump with Xi Jinping (AFP/FILE)

Trump does not like China.

For decades, he has spoken out against what he perceived to be China taking advantage of the U.S. While begrudgingly respectful of China’s ‘strength’ as an economic force, Trump is steadily ramping up his trade war with the east Asian country.

Former president Barack Obama actually recognized China’s rise as a threat to the U.S. too, but sought an equally controversial neoliberal approach of co-optation. His negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic deal was an attempt to draw partner-nations closer to the U.S. and farther from China under the guise of a free-trade agreement.

Trump ripped up the agreement, withdrawing from TPP as soon as he could.

Trading multi-billion dollar tariffs on steel and aluminum with China, Trump is likely not paying attention to the ripples his trade war could cause in the Middle East.

“While Trump’s trade war on so many fronts, from one end of Asia to the other, may be geopolitically calculating, it may not end well for U.S. geopolitical clout in Asia,” warned Chengxin Pan, Associate Professor of International Relations at Deakin University.

“If China itself can withstand this trade war assault from Washington and prove to be a more responsible economic partner in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially at times of economic crisis, its influence may grow at the expense of the U.S.,” he continued.


Trump’s message to China may be that it must subordinate itself to the U.S. economy, but in practice, it is merely accelerating China’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); China’s multi-trillion dollar program to build economic partnerships with developing nations throughout Africa and Asia.

The BRI can be understood as China’s own project to compete with  U.S.’ economic reach. Trump’s trade war is simply giving China less reason to cling on to its partnerships with the U.S. and more reason to seek out others through the BRI.

The Belt and Road Initiative

After Trump began putting tariffs on Chinese-imported products in April and July, China’s President Xi Jinping promptly announced that China would provide $20 billion in loans to Middle Eastern countries, about $115 million in aid grants and the creation of a Sino-Middle Eastern bank with a dedicated $3 billion fund. Some of the recipient countries including Yemen and Syria were previously not expected to be included in China’s BRI so fast.

Taken together, these economic developments could signal that China is accelerating its plan to diversify its economic partnerships rather than remain dependant on the U.S.

As Trump appears to cede residual U.S. influence to regional competitors, he is slowly opening the door for greater Chinese influence in the region.

China appears to be stepping through that door, and closing it.

“For China, the more bogged down the U.S. is in the Middle East, the more China benefits and can pursue its Belt & Road and other efforts to foster a more Sino-centric world,” said Robert Manning, Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, to Al Bawaba.


Trump’s New Fight with Turkey

Trump with Erdogan (AFP/FILE)

The ongoing economic spat between the U.S. and Turkey is also complicated.

Although the U.S. and Turkey have drifted away from each other over the past few years, Turkey's jailing of an American Evangelical pastor riled Trump. In retaliation, he threw prohibitive tariffs over imports of Turkish steel and aluminum and has halted the sale of a batch of F-35 stealth jets to Turkey.

Turkey President Recep Erdogan has not backed down; as a rising strongman concerned with projecting abject strength, he has threatened to leave NATO over the rift, and announced on July 14 that Turkey will boycott American electronics. "If they [the U.S.] have the iPhone, there's Samsung on the other side," Erdogan said in a public speech announcing the decision.

Apart from wanting Turkey’s Erdogan to know that his country is still very much under the U.S.’ thumb, Trump may also have felt domestically pressured to act strongly against the detention of an Evangelical-American pastor. One of his most stable and vocal base of voters is Evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and are largely responsible for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In the short-term, the Turkish lira has plunged to record-lows as Trump piles on tariffs and Turkey copes with a volatile economy. In the medium and long-term however, Trump’s actions is a wake-up call to Turkey.


Erdogan (AFP/FILE)

Erdogan, in a bid to restore Turkey’s regional influence, cannot rely on the U.S. if it is an antagonistic trading partner, so he will likely seek out other countries to fill the trading gap left by the U.S. This means if Turkey can whether the storm of U.S. tariffs, then it can loosen its reliance on the U.S. entirely.

“Historically the U.S. has looked to Turkey to safeguard Europe’s southeast flank and help to project power into the Middle East. Obviously that is lost as relations with Erdogan spiral downward,” relayed Brad Glosserman, an expert at geopolitics at the Center for Strategic International Studies.


In a bid to outright replace the U.S., Russia has pitched to Turkey to drop the U.S. Dollar and trade directly between Russian rubles and Turkish lira. Russia’s offer to swoop in to save Turkey’s economy demonstrates how U.S.’ adversaries are more than willing to replace any economic gap Trump leaves.

Glosserman told Al Bawaba that Trump’s fight with Turkey also opens the door for Ankara to engage more productively with China: “to the degree that Turkey remains a bridge, U.S. influence is diminished and that of China increased as Trump picks a fight with Ankara and China tries to help the troubled Turkish economy during this crisis,” he said.

All in all, Trump’s moves against China and Turkey may be intended to punish both countries, but are in effect giving them and other developing countries reason to wean themselves out of the U.S.’ sphere of influence.

This would be a daunting and potentially disastrous exercise in isolationism if the U.S. held a hegemonic grip on the world economy, but China is making sure this isn’t the case.

In fact, developing countries, including Turkey, mat begin to eye China’s BRI as a kind of bailout or alternative to Trump’s economic moves.

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