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President Donald Trump is embracing a major expansion of foreign aid that will finance infrastructure projects in Africa, Asia and the Americas -- an initiative he once sought to scuttle.

With little fanfare, Trump signed a bill a little over a week ago that created a new foreign aid agency -- the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. -- and gave it authority to provide $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees and insurance to companies willing to do business in developing nations.

The move was a significant reversal for Trump, who has harshly criticized foreign aid. Since becoming president, Trump has proposed slashing $3 billion in overseas assistance, backed eliminating funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and taken steps to gut the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department agency that dispenses $22.7 billion a year in grants around the world.

The president's shift has less to do with a sudden embrace of foreign aid than a desire to block China's plan for economic, technological and political dominance. China has spent nearly five years bankrolling a plan to gain greater global influence by financing big projects across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., helped sell the plan to the president and to conservative Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus, which has historically opposed foreign-aid programs.

"I've changed, and I think [the president] has changed, and it is all about China," Yoho said.

"My whole impetus in running for Congress in the first place was to get rid of foreign aid. It was my thing," said Yoho, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. "But if we can reformulate and modernize it, yeah, I have no problem with that. There are people who want to do this for humanitarian aid, fine. There are people like me who want to do this for national security, like me, fine."

The effort is part of a sweeping attempt by the Trump administration to prevent China's economic and political dominance. Trump has already imposed tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese goods as punishment for Beijing's trade practices, which he says put U.S. companies at a disadvantage. Last week, his administration detailed a plan to use expanded powers to crack down on foreign investment in the United States, which was aimed primarily at making it harder for China to gain access to U.S. technology and trade secrets.

And the administration said last week that it would sharply restrict exports of civilian nuclear technology to China.

The new bipartisan push to increase foreign aid began under President Barack Obama's administration, but it was rebranded as a means of competing with China's "Belt and Road Initiative," which has a goal of distributing $1 trillion in construction aid and investments to more than 100 countries.

China's biggest investments are targeted to countries like Pakistan and Nigeria, with a goal of expanding Beijing's geopolitical power and gaining access to natural resources like minerals and oil. But it is also spending billions on projects in smaller countries that are less likely to turn a monetary or political profit. Last month, President Xi Jinping said China would provide $60 billion in financial support to Africa, including credit lines, grants and investment financing.

The investments have raised concerns that poor and emerging nations like Djibouti and Sri Lanka could be increasingly beholden to China, which can seize local assets if countries default on loans.

"The whole point of China's activity is building things no one else wanted to build -- rail lines between African countries that hate each other, roads in bad terrain, power plants that are never going to make any money," said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the Chinese and Indian economies.

"If a country can't pay, they will take assets they want," he added. "But they aren't setting a debt trap. This is about expanding their reach and exercising passive power."

The United States' initiative is far less ambitious. But it "allows us, at least, to compete," said Tom Hart, North America executive director of the One Campaign, the development nonprofit that musician Bono helped found.

The new $60 billion aid program was tucked into a five-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, and its passage was the product of a quiet, bipartisan effort. It included the One Campaign, the Brookings Institution, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and conservative House members like Yoho.

A Section on 10/16/2018

Print Headline: Trump embraces foreign aid

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