But, I was struck by a further omission: No mention – zero, nada, not a peep – about the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an entity generally perceived to be part, broadly speaking, of Mr. Tillerson’s former foreign policy conglomerate. He naturally mentioned his State Department colleagues; he referenced military colleagues or entities no fewer than six times; and, okay, there was a reference to the “interagency process.” But, where, I found myself asking, was the sturdy “three-legged stool” of American influence abroad? Where were the “three Ds,” diplomacy, defense and development? What about “boots on the ground, wingtips on the ground, Reeboks on the ground?”
By the time I read the following morning’s news, however, I had a completely different perspective on what I took as a misguided, if not callous, lapse by the outgoing secretary: Mr. Wang Yong had stepped in where Mr. Tillerson chose not to tread.
The Washington Post and numerous other media sources (my thanks to them), covering recent Chinese government efforts to reorganize and streamline its executive branch agencies, reported that China will establish a new foreign aid agency. State Counselor Wang Yong is quoted as introducing the new agency to the Chinese parliament this way: “The move is designed ‘to give full play to foreign aid as a key means of major-country diplomacy,’ enhance its coordination and ‘better serve the nation’s diplomatic strategy.’” China’s decision to create a new foreign aid agency – described in the official Chinese Government press release as a “international development cooperation agency” – was all the more dramatic and interesting in that it came at a time when that nation was reducing by eight the number of ministries in China’s cabinet.
Dr. Li Fan of the generally well-regarded think-tank World and China Institute was reported to have compared the new government entity to USAID and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, saying: “Usually developed countries would have a foreign aid agency like this.”
More later on what the creation of this new entity will mean for the volume and nature of Chinese aid. The very preliminary information available makes it sound like the new agency will still be infrastructure-heavy, so “details to follow” on how profound this change will be as to the content of Chinese aid.
But this much I do know: As the British cleric Charles Caleb Colton stated in the early Eighteenth Century, “imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.” Chinese foreign policy planners are, if anything, careful, meticulous, analytical and long-term oriented in their choices. If these planners came to the conclusion to create a Chinese international development cooperation agency, it was because careful analysis showed the value of such an entity within the developing world and as an adjunct to China’s foreign policy writ large.
Rex Tillerson’s farewell remarks aside, it is clear that the Trump Administration, in its policy statements against “nation building” and in its proposed budget cuts, three years running, to foreign aid, has never bought into the value of U.S. development assistance. Here and elsewhere, I have argued that the U.S. international development community should continue a vigorous dialogue with the Administration to educate it on how foreign aid works and what a valuable component of American foreign policy it can be.
But, if the President’s team won’t listen to home-grown advocates for America’s investment in human progress abroad, perhaps they will take at least a moment to contemplate what Wang Yong had to say, and think hard on why the Chinese government is making this move.