Ulysses McGuinness | February 5, 2018
Responding To: Opportunities and Challenges on the Belt and Road Initiative
"BRI" Gift Box: Open it and Pick What You Like
What’s the biggest challenge of U.S.-China cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? I think the answer may be “no cooperation.”
We all know that the current relationship between the United States and China contains not only cooperation but also rivalry. Geopolitical concerns significantly influence Americans’ views of BRI. The initiative is sometimes viewed as a deliberate attempt to economically marginalize the United States, which has largely shunned the initiative as incompatible with its own interests. Frankly speaking, this is all understandable. China’s vision of the BRI as a mechanism to achieve “more in-depth regional cooperation… that benefits all” sounds somehow too idealistic. And we cannot ignore the objective competitive relationship and just expect the United States to warmly embrace BRI. However, can refusing to cooperate and adopting an ostrich policy toward BRI be the best choice for America to have an advantage in this game?
I’m afraid not. The BRI is just like a gift box full of uncertainty for the United States. It is really a hard choice to decide to accept it or throw it away. That is why I say the biggest challenge for cooperation is “no cooperation.” Without profound mutual trust, I am afraid the United States will toss away this box and give up all the potential it contains. Nonetheless, the third choice should also be noticed: open the box and just pick out what they like. Certainly, America won’t like everything in the box, but there is no denying that some stuff is quite attractive. It is more sensible to engage with it where it serves U.S. interests rather than viewing the entire initiative through the often simplistic lens of geopolitical competition. American and Chinese interests may overlap considerably in some regions or some issue areas, and this overlap is where the opportunities for cooperation lie.
A simple example: both China and the United States benefit from a stable and productive central Asia, Middle East, and Africa. So, U.S. policymakers should maintain open minds when assessing the impact of proposed BRI projects on American interest in these places. Many articles have discussed it so I won’t expand on this topic here. I want to introduce a more micro-perspective for U.S.-China cooperation on BRI.
As the Chinese government keeps pushing hard to implement BRI, many construction programs have a strong political implication from the beginning. Chinese companies are not only market participants chasing interests, but also the spokespersons of government image. The problem is that it can bring hidden troubles for sustainable development of BRI. For example, in the “Makkah Metro Pink Line” program, under great political pressure, a Chinese company had to finish the work on time though it suffered great losses and a lot of disputes remained unsettled. This program has shaken many Chinese companies’ confidence in investing in BRI’s projects. The healthy development of BRI needs to introduce more standardized operation of markets. American firms can serve important roles in this respect. For one, the programs’ political color will be watered down with the entry of American firms. For another, American firms can also have a finger in the pie. Their involvement would reinvigorate the bilateral business relationship at a time when sources of friction are multiplying, yet many in the business community complain that information about potential opportunities is hard to come by.
The United States and China should establish dialogue and collaboration mechanisms focused on exploiting areas of overlapping interests in the BRI domain and to coordinate their different, yet complementary, strengths in development. Regardless of how it is currently viewed by either Chinese or American strategic thinkers, BRI should be seen on both sides as a vital instrument for strengthening habits of cooperation between the two nations. We can openly admit that China and the United States are rivals, but it doesn’t mean we should act childishly and throw away the BRI box. President Trump may not like the box itself, but I think it is still worth a try to open it and find something interesting there.
Finally, let’s talk about the underlying spirit of BRI. If we aspire to live on this planet happily and peacefully, we must shift to a more sustainable and inclusive model of development. It is not possible for one country alone, or one sector of society alone, to have a hold on all the wealth and enjoy the fruits of prosperity. Only by sharing growth and security can we ensure development that is long-lasting and sustainable. I believe that the wave of globalization has come and we are all in the same boat. As a member of a community of common destiny for all mankind, we had better work together.
Haile Chen is a junior at Tsinghua University in Beijing, majoring in construction management and minoring in finance.
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