Devil in the Details: Biden’s Belt and Road Requires More Nuanced Strategy

By Michael Rubin

“Together, we must oppose all acts of unilateralism in the name of multilateralism, hegemony, and power politics,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a commemoration of the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 6. His statement, intended to encourage CCP allies to oppose any country that engages in “technology blockades,” is in reference to the United States’ placement of China’s Huawei and 70 affiliates on a trade blacklist in 2019. President Xi’s calls for unity in opposing U.S. interests were in response to recent foreign policy posturing by the newly-installed Biden administration and the unveiling of a direct challenge to Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, President Biden has yet to reveal critical aspects of his project, which will be decisive in guaranteeing success or failure in its execution. Resolution of these unknowns—including environmental protections and safeguards, sources and allocation of funding, and norm-setting in infrastructure projects and collaboration—must predate the unveiling of B3W if failed leadership and unmet commitments are to be avoided.

On June 13, President Biden joined his recent predecessors in recognizing U.S.-China relations as a centerpiece of American foreign policy, and prioritizing his China containment strategy in foreign statecraft and spending. At the G-7 summit, he announced an international, multi-faceted plan that, if successful, would minimize the influence of Xi’s signature global infrastructure program, BRI. Biden’s plan, “Build Back Better World Partnership” (B3W), intends to mobilize private-sector capital in four areas of focus—climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality—in order to alleviate the need for long-term infrastructure abroad. Making a commitment to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign infrastructure investment and encouraging good governance among partner nations, the Biden administration has exceedingly high hopes in constructing a competitive response to BRI.

Biden’s firm response is merited given that China is advancing BRI in ways that undermine global macroeconomic stability and threaten U.S. interests. In Southeast Asia and Africa, for example, BRI projects have increased the likelihood that debt crises will materialize over the coming years by neglecting the issue of debt sustainability. Moreover, BRI projects have given China access to hundreds of dual-use ports in locations that are pivotal for facilitating international trade and developing military strategy, such as the Gwadar port on the Strait of Hormuz and Mombasa port on the Indian Ocean. Unless it utilizes strategically located allies in B3W and establishes a concrete effort against China’s accumulating soft and hard power, the United States will cede significant potential for international influence to China.

Unfortunately, the B3W plan fails to take sufficient precautions in terms of enforcement of environmental standards, clear delineation of sources and allocation of funding, and establishment of crucial infrastructure-building norms. President Biden must acknowledge that China has been in this game longer, having pooled capital from a seemingly limitless system of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and infrastructure-building agencies for years, furthered by its creative use of international aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. His administration will have increased likelihood for success in B3W by actively addressing the following: 

First, BRI is currently a major source of growing global carbon emissions and locks countries into high-carbon infrastructure. By using B3W funding to subsidize the price of traditionally more expensive eco-friendly infrastructure, the United States can introduce systems that produce less carbon emissions to low-income countries without the disincentive of increased cost. Moreover, Washington can make clear its commitment to conservation through requiring environmental assessments of projects before approval. This improved oversight will result in less unanticipated crises and increased reliability in project execution and follow-through.

Second, the international community involved in B3W must amass an unprecedented amount of funding through nontraditional means in order to compete with China. As BRI has no central oversight body—and funding stems from a sporadic and diverse arsenal of policy banks, SOEs, and government agencies—the Biden administration must maneuver around the financial burden of competing with China. Devoting an additional $100 billion toward federal research and development funding is crucial in preparation for the early stages of B3W

Finally, the Biden administration must follow through on its promise to pursue international infrastructure in a “values-driven” and ethical manner. Much of the international pushback from BRI has been related to the absence of a centralized oversight body, which has led to rampant corruption and predatory behavior across many BRI countries. President Biden hopes B3W will curry good faith for U.S. efforts abroad, while decisively casting doubt on the controversial BRI and Chinese global leadership generally. Practicing virtues of non-predatory trade agreements, flexible debt repayment, and emphasis of establishing equitable and long-term partnerships will reestablish U.S. credibility as an ethical global leader in contrast to China.

Weeks after the G-7 summit, the timeline for implementing B3W and much else surrounding it still remain unknown. The Biden administration must be explicit about how it intends to operationalize B3W, and quickly. Time is of the essence if the United States hopes to compete with China’s nearly $1 trillion already spent on BRI. 

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