Research Workshop on China's Belt and Road Initiative and U.S.-China Relations
November 6, 2017

Research Workshop on China's Belt and Road Initiative and U.S.-China Relations

On November 6, 2017, the Georgetown Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues and China’s Tsinghua University Global Development Institute held a workshop on “China’s Belt and Road Initiative and U.S.-China Relations” at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Convened by Dr. Zhao Kejin of Tsinghua University and Professor Dennis Wilder of Georgetown University, the meetings included 12 leading U.S. and Chinese scholars from over 10 universities and think tanks. The discussion explored two key themes centered on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese initiative to underwrite $1 trillion of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road and further link China with Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Participants explored BRI-related opportunities in U.S.-China relations and security challenges presented by the initiative.

Ambitions and Obstacles for BRI

The BRI is China’s most ambitious international undertaking of the twenty-first century, involving over 70 countries and economies on three continents. Several Chinese scholars at the workshop emphasized that China’s post-19th Party Congress foreign strategy will become increasingly confident as it seeks a more active role in global governance and cultivates a great-power identity. They expressed their view that the BRI is an initiative, not a geostrategic gambit, calling the BRI an answer to Western criticisms that China has been a “free rider” on the world stage. They view the BRI as a way for China to do its part in providing public goods and believe that the critical role of interconnectivity in the globalized era of commerce and trade means that the BRI is likely to grow in importance in the years to come.

Simultaneously, China acknowledges the need for U.S. involvement in realizing a successful BRI and would like the United States to make such efforts. However, as some on the U.S. side pointed out, it will take Chinese initiative to get the United States more involved on specific areas for cooperation because of U.S. skepticism of Chinese practices and motives. The U.S. participants expressed confusion as to China’s core intentions for the BRI and pressed for evidence that it was primarily an economic and not a geopolitical initiative. U.S. participants also predicted that the U.S. attitude toward the BRI will be shaped in part by the perspectives of U.S. allies and other regional partners.

Further complicating the United States’ involvement in and support of the BRI is an ambivalent U.S. strategy of engagement with and counterbalancing of the BRI. Chinese participants expressed confusion as to the key direction and themes of the new U.S. administration’s Asia strategy and argued that this makes it difficult to engage the United States on the BRI. They expressed concern that Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent call for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” might result in a U.S. strategy of containment of China, using India to counterbalance China’s rising regional influence.

Development, Security and the BRI

On a broader level, the United States and China are still trying to address the development-security nexus. There was a consensus that the key feature of this century will be global connectivity, but the question remains how both countries will perceive the other’s actions as it relates to international development and following a rules-based mechanism for engaging along the belt and road countries. Can the world’s dominant power and the world’s fastest rising power avoid the trap of conflict and build the kind of mutual trust required to avoid a destructive competition for global primacy? This core question of a “trust deficit” was addressed in a prior exploratory workshop on U.S.-China strategic trust  held in Washington in March 2017.

The group agreed on the need for greater understanding of the BRI and the need to promote institutional cooperation between the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, World Bank, and others. On security, all participants saw a potential for the United States and China to cooperate within the BRI framework to counter transnational crime and terrorism.  Dr. Zhao summed up this workshop by saying that it had been a “friendly, forward looking, and fruitful” academic exchange and that he is eager to look for ways that the United States and China can cooperate to build a shared future. 

Next Steps

Over the coming months, Dr. Zhao Kejin and Professor Dennis Wilder will develop a formal research group to reconvene in Washington in spring 2018 to explore in more detail the opportunities for Sino-U.S. cooperation on the BRI in the strategically important region of South Asia.