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February 4, 2018

Responding To: Opportunities and Challenges on the Belt and Road Initiative

The Ideological Roots of Competition over the Belt and Road Initiative

Ulysses McGuinness

In a calculated demonstration of China's ascent onto the world stage, President Xi Jinping hosted the leaders and representatives of over 130 countries and 70 international organizations at the Belt and Road Forum  for International Cooperation last May 2017. Ambitiously, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisions the linking of the East and West through six massive land-based economic corridors (at the moment), in addition to the maritime Silk Road. Chinese leaders promise the BRI's trade connections will yield massive benefit for all who participate. Realistically, however, neither the United States nor China seeks cooperation in actualizing the BRI.

From questions about Chinese leadership's strategic intent to China's current protectionist economic practices, there are still significant amounts of ambiguity and doubt associated with the BRI. These questions raise concern among a large body of international actors. Concurrently, in the United States, the Trump administration recently announced its new National Security Strategy labeling China as a competitor. It appears as though decision-makers in Washington have already decided that any benefit the United States may derive from cooperating with China on the BRI is not significant enough to offset a deep mistrust of Chinese strategic intentions. Why is that?

Many commentators have focused on the technical aspects that undergird the debate of whether the United States and China should cooperate on the BRI. They debate topics such as the U.S. opposition to the bilateral nature of China’s interaction with BRI partner countries, or whatever security concerns the United States has with the BRI. Nevertheless, many commentators have lost sight of the fundamental reason that drives the United States and China to have divergent interests. At its heart, this issue revolves around the importance of the ideological rift between key U.S. decision-makers and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This ideological rift matters more as China grows more ascendant on the world stage. The question is thus no longer whether the United States and China should cooperate, but rather could they cooperate over matters as important as the BRI?

The United States is unwilling to cooperate with China over issues of strategic significance because, in doing so, it would have to recognize China’s new decision-making position in a changing world order. This desire to exclude China from being a shaper of the new world order is not a matter of American reluctance to acknowledge China’s rise. Rather, refusing to recognize China’s new role is central to Washington’s national interest.  

Protection of individual rights and adherence to the rule of law are at the core of American values, and by extension, U.S. national interest. These American-led ideals have been structuring the international order since the end of World War II. Today, these ideals are reflected in international charters like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. While it is true that China has benefited from this existing system and has good reason not to destabilize it, U.S. policymakers would argue that having the CCP in a decision-making capacity on the world stage would inherently destabilize this system. Presently, the Trump administration argues that the CCP is taking advantage of the existing system by employing unfair economic practices, and that its influence is anathema to American liberal values. In the long term—American decision-makers reason—if the CCP were able to leverage its influence, simply by virtue of its form of governance, the existing liberal order would no longer exist.  

In short, key American decision-makers’ view that cooperating with China on momentous projects like the BRI is akin to steadily giving more influence to the CCP on the world stage. In doing so, and by “allowing” the CCP to influence—in the years to come—the world order, some of these decision-makers argue that the core precepts of the protection of the individual and a rule of law-abiding international arrangement will steadily erode, and by extension directly jeopardize American national interest internationally. These same decision-makers argue that this will foment the rise of a multi-polar arrangement—much like the years leading up to World War I—where international disputes will no longer be resolved through a respect for the rule of law, but rather the might of the state.

Conversely, key Chinese leaders may argue that they cannot cooperate with the United States on the BRI because this directly challenges the CCP’s legitimacy. Elements of the CCP are convinced that the United States continues to work towards bringing about a regime change in Beijing and ending the CCP’s monopoly on power in China. Many in China’s circle of leaders also ardently believe that a fear of China surpassing the United States underlines Washington’s reluctance to see China rise.

As a result, key Chinese leaders view potential U.S. participation in projects like the BRI as a hindrance and potentially a subversive force. Growing U.S. demands that China needs to put an end to its overprotection of its domestic companies, increase its protection of foreign intellectual property, and scrap unfair rules imposed upon foreign companies doing business in China plays into the narrative that the United States has an unhealthy fascination with Chinese domestic affairs. Hawkish elements of party leadership argue that allowing the United States a chance to dictate or befuddle China’s signature policy is simply too big of a risk.

Cooperation between the United States and China on the BRI will hinge over fundamental questions of opposing ideology. Is the U.S. willing to accept changes to the existing liberal system in order to accommodate a rising China? Alternatively, would China be willing to push through political and economic reforms, which may ultimately serve to threaten the CCP’s legitimacy and monopoly on power domestically? At present, it appears as though key U.S. decision-makers and CCP leadership are unwilling to make concessions over what they perceive to be their respective ideological bottom line. As such, it is unlikely that the United States or China is willing to cooperate on projects such as the BRI in the near future.

Ulysses McGuinness is a Cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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