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January 28, 2018

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

U.S. Participation in the Belt and Road Initiative in a Shifting World Order

Cynthia Wang

In 2017, the Trump administration adopted an “America First” strategy, which, among other things, resulted in protectionist foreign policy decisions that pulled it out of multilateral accords such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement. While America decreased its presence on the global stage, China only seemed to increase its own. Most notably, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) established the country’s new status of leadership in an era of globalization. So far, the project has expanded to involve over 60 countries in a development scheme worth a projected trillion dollars. At a global scale, China aims to connect six economic corridors and about two-thirds of the world’s population to itself via land and sea trade routes; China’s global economic and development involvement indirectly allows the country to adopt a more “responsible world power” status.

The United States approaches BRI with caution and a reluctance to fully commit to cooperation. A report by the Institute for China-America Studies indicates that the American perspective on BRI is relatively ambivalent. Its concerns are mainly about China’s accountability to standards and its social and environmental business transgressions, which have the potential to “erode” Western development norms. Challenges facing U.S.-China cooperation on the BRI seem to stem from the Trump administration’s fear of the changing world order and its protectionist policies. Washington has expressed suspicions that BRI’s developments are meant to increase China’s geopolitical influence and marginalize the United States. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis even stated that “in a globalized world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road.’’ In October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the United States could seek alternatives to infrastructure investment programs and financing schemes. Washington even partnered up with Tokyo, an open critic of BRI, to provide new funding and construction sources for infrastructure projects—ones that will “support and promote international best practices,” according to the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Working in direct competition to one of China’s most important foreign policy strategies poses challenges to cooperation, as two great powers butting heads could very well lead to insecurity in geopolitics. For the rest of the world, it is also more favorable to have no sides than be forced to choose sides.

BRI has already been set in action and is currently being considered by leaders all around the world. As the United States continues to determine its role in the shifting world order, it would benefit the country to evaluate BRI more seriously, as cooperation could lead to potential trade and development opportunities. On China’s end, in order to placate the Trump administration (and the rest of the world), BRI should become less of a bilateral effort—in which China makes deals with individual countries—and more of a multilateral one that emphasizes inclusive cooperation and addresses the interests of all stakeholders. China is moving ahead with this project with or without the support of the United States, so it makes the most sense for the United States to find a way to be part of the conversation and of this new trade network.

Opportunities lie at the intersection of both countries’ national interests. BRI has the capability to stimulate global economic growth by closing infrastructure gaps and creating new, more efficient trade flows, which would benefit participating U.S. corporations. U.S.-China cooperation on major infrastructural changes in transportation, energy, and natural resources could also improve the entire flow of trade and investment in less developed regions. Development is in the best interests of both countries because it theoretically would create more geopolitical stability in less stable areas. Most importantly, cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative itself is an opportunity to prove that the United States and China can coexist on the world stage even while pursuing their own national interests. Participation could further help the U.S. secure its position in a changing world order by allowing it to showcase a degree of flexibility and adopt the role of a strategic team player. Cooperation must come from both ends though, and from China, a more transparent and explanatory dialogue about BRI’s potential can help the two countries begin to determine common ground.

Cynthia Wang is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a double major in political science and environmental studies.

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