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Responding To: Tangible Cooperation in 2017

One Belt, One Road: Opportunities for U.S.-China Cooperation in 2017

Richard Chang


With an incoming Trump Administration that has made controversial statements about the status of Taiwan and has even called for more assertive U.S. actions in the South China Sea, 2017 seems like it will be a year full of uncertainty for the U.S.-China relationship. Nevertheless, while the United States and China have major ideological and political differences, both countries do share a variety of mutual interests. One crucial but often overlooked area of cooperation is in Central Asia and the Middle East. 2017 appears to be a crucial year for China’s recently launched “One Belt, One Road” initiative (OBOR). The initiative offers a variety of concrete opportunities where the United States and China can collaborate to promote infrastructure development and economic stability in the region.

Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping as a network of regional infrastructure projects, OBOR has continued to expand and will now include promotion of enhanced policy coordination across the Asian continent, financial integration, trade liberalization, and people-to- people connectivity. During 2016, China has already completed key achievements, including major progress with Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, a crucial link in the project. In President Xi’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, he presented China as a leader for globalization, claiming, “we must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization . . . and say no to protectionism.” OBOR arguably is an example of China’s efforts to promote greater global integration and trade.

As China takes on a more influential and assertive role in both the geopolitical and security arenas, there are concerns that China’s efforts are a zero-sum game meant to challenge U.S. interests.  This zero-sum thinking, though, may at times be misleading and arguably contributed to the U.S. government’s decision to not only refuse to join AIIB but also try to prevent allies from doing so. At the time, the U.S. government believed the AIIB was aiming at undercutting existing international financial institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank. Nevertheless, when countries such as the UK and other key allies joined the AIIB, it became more apparent that the United States and its allies actually had a variety of mutual interests and areas of cooperation pertaining to infrastructure development and financing.

The United States should avoid making the same mistake it made with the AIIB and make a concerted effort to work with China and OBOR. Indeed, OBOR creates opportunities for cooperation between China and the United States to promote greater stability and economic growth in Central Asia, and the Middle East. Where U.S. officials see China’s resurgence and ambition in the Asia-Pacific as the core driver of regional insecurity (for example, China’s provocations in the South China Sea), in the Middle East they see a surprising convergence of U.S. and Chinese interests that boils down to one mutual goal: security. From this perspective, Beijing shares Washington’s desires to see a stable and secure Afghanistan and Pakistan due primarily to its own concerns with Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang.

The prospect for U.S.-China cooperation in promoting stability in Afghanistan and in the greater region is primarily based on two major factors. First, the OBOR strategy itself, while growing out of a decades-long agenda to firmly integrate Xinjiang and overcome Uyghur separatism and terrorism through the delivery of economic development, looks set to engage China more directly in the problems of the region. With its focus on the development of transregional infrastructure links and investment—such as the planned US$46 billion China– Pakistan Economic Corridor— OBOR looks set to give China a greater stake in the future security and prosperity of Central Asia and the Middle East.

Second, Obama administration officials have also approvingly noted that China’s OBOR plans mirror the intent of the U.S. New Silk Road Initiative (NSR) of 2011. Led by the U.S. government, the U.S. New Silk Road Initiative seeks to make Afghanistan a north-to-south infrastructure and economic corridor between Central and South Asia. Since President Xi’s announcement in 2013 of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative during a state visit to Kazakhstan, Obama administration officials have regularly argued that Beijing’s initiatives are, in fact, “mutually reinforcing” of U.S. efforts to “support peace, stability, and prosperity” through the enhancement of economic opportunity and connectivity “in what is the least-economically integrated region in the world today.”

Both initiatives see the Middle East and Central Asia as key regions to develop, both due to their economic potential and for the need to provide an alternative to the regional instability that threatens both China and the United States. Additionally, the existence of such bilateral projects and cooperation in this region not only produces added value for the countries in question but also has the potential to enhance mutual relations between China and United States.

In light of mutual U.S.-China interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia in both NSR and OBOR as well as an incoming Trump administration, the United States and China should first and foremost dispel notions of competition between the NSR and OBOR and stress their complementary goals and approaches. Public acknowledgment of this complementarity will encourage other regional actors to view the two as mutually reinforcing.

Second, the United States and China should leverage existing multilateral projects. If the OBOR and the NSR work in tandem, they can complete large, concrete projects in the region. The existing projects identified by the NSR and partners in the World Bank and regional governments will stand a better chance of success if all donors and partners work together to leverage resources.

Third, the United States and China should link multilateral projects to job creation in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The current and growing youth bulges in the region pose a significant risk to security and political stability. The projects above offer productive employment opportunities that are one step toward incorporating those youth into a stable region. The OBOR and the NSR should collaborate to develop job-training components alongside infrastructure projects, thereby providing a sustainable development model for the region.

Overall, given the importance of the U.S.-China relationship, it is crucial for President Trump to promote collaboration and cooperation between the two countries. As the OBOR initiative gains momentum, it has the opportunity to bring unprecedented infrastructure and economic connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Although it will take concrete collaboration and projects between the United States and China to overcome notions of inherent competition, the OBOR and the NSR will be more likely to succeed and generate significant returns if they complement one another rather than compete for the same resources.

While the United States and China have a variety of strong political and ideological differences, both countries do share similar interests for a more stable Middle East and Central Asia and should work together to promote stability and peace in the region.

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