Ulysses McGuinness | February 5, 2018
Responding To: Opportunities and Challenges on the Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative Deserves A Try
Before we look at the question, “Should the United States work with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?” it is probably necessary to ask “What exactly is the BRI?” This is because the BRI is still confusing many entrepreneurs and policymakers in the United States, as well as other countries that have joined this enormous project and already made infrastructure-building contracts with Chinese companies. It is a real question since Chinese scholars themselves keep revising the BRI blueprints. If you are tracking Beijing’s change of tone you will find that this initiative developed from a proposal of strengthening transportation and communication in Central Asia in 2013 to a plan of “six economic corridors” that cover the whole Eurasian continent. By 2017, the idea of “reviving the ancient silk road” was gradually replaced by the appeal of “connecting the whole world.” Besides, just as Alexander Gabuev from Carnegie Moscow Center criticized, the BRI lacks “stated goals, criteria for success, and a timeline.”
Thus, the BRI now is in some ways a regional development project without clear boundaries and detailed content, making it a problem for the United States to evaluate the necessity of cooperating with China and to figure out on what to cooperate. This also brings challenges to China, given that this initiative involves many countries over whom the United States holds considerable interest.
But, the BRI can be interpreted in a different perspective. In an age when goods and capital flow from everywhere to everywhere, how to make the flows more efficient, safer, and beneficial to more people is fundamentally important and is the most basic question that the BRI claims to find an answer to. China is making real, maybe less systemic, efforts to achieve this goal. On the other hand, the initiative just reflects an inevitable trend that China seeks to transfer its surplus economic strength into political power in the international regime, which is fair enough.
So, let’s start from here to rethink U.S.-China cooperation on the BRI. First of all, building up connectivity in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia benefits both Chinese and American companies. Also, economic development and integration brought by connectivity can contribute to regional stability, which is in both countries’ favor. Actually, the United States realized this much earlier than China by promoting a “New Silk Road Project” to rebuild Afghanistan through expanding regional linkages in South and Central Asia since 2011, though this “underfunded and under-resourced” project was in fact abandoned later during the Obama administration. Afghanistan is not the only one, for countries experiencing political transformation like Myanmar, access to better infrastructure and business opportunities can generate improvement of the social environment in a bottom-up way.
China’s BRI could fall into the same situation as America’s “Silk Road,” but currently there is still a chance for it to fulfill what the United States meant to, and the chance will be bigger if the two countries cooperate intellectually, diplomatically, and financially. In terms of the growing concern that the BRI will only coordinate with China’s need for new energy resources supply and production capacity transfer, the U.S.’s engagement can help to decentralize China in the BRI, guarantee inclusivity of the network, and widen the benefit for other participants.
The United States may not be happy with China’s de facto increase in geopolitical advantages through promoting the BRI, even though China clarified itself as “not seeking the sphere of influence.” This can lead to the ultimate debate about the interaction between a rising power and an existing hegemon, which is too complicated to discuss in this blog. But, talking about China’s attempt to create its own international regime of regional development, the United States can do more than remain indifferent or resistant. China does not desire the sole leadership in regional development integration: Japan already launched its own “Quality Infrastructure Investment Project”; Modi is busy advertising India’s “Project Monsoons”; and Moscow wants to expand its Eurasian Economic Union into a larger Eurasia partnership. There are for sure competitions and even conflicts between these various schemes—the border standoff between China and India in 2017 can be viewed as an example—but competition is not necessarily a bad thing if regional powers can reach compromises under guidance and balance of the United States. Thus, what the United States can do is to actively participate in regional building projects, either belonging to China’s “Silk Road” or India’s “Spice Road,” and to coordinate these schemes by using its relationships and influence.
As Secretary Mattis said, “No one nation should put itself into a position of dictating 'One Belt, One Road’.” China is neither capable nor willing to do so. But “belts and roads” connecting countries in the Asia Pacific region, whether in forms of railways or policy coordination, are never too many to be built, and cannot be smoothly built without the joint efforts of the United States and China. At the least, the BRI deserves a try for both to work together.
Chenyu Wu is a junior at the University of International Relations in Beijing, majoring in international politics.
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