The central place of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt One Road or OBOR”) in China’s economic and foreign policy is clear. How it fits into U.S.-China relations is much less obvious. Does the initiative signify a new level of geopolitical competition, or does it present opportunities for the United States and China to improve their relationship? A survey of common attitudes in the U.S. reveals a deep ambivalence on this question and a general uncertainty about BRI’s broader significance. However, a few clear themes can be identified. By articulating them, perhaps a path forward can become more apparent.
First, American analysts and policymakers constantly raise the issue of standards in Chinese lending and development policy. This is grounded in pragmatic concerns like the environment, but also in worries that China provides a tempting but nonetheless unsustainable alternative to existing lending institutions. The most extreme form of this concern about standards derives from the apprehension that China seeks to create a parallel, illiberal economic or political order that competes with or replaces the so-called liberal international order. BRI raises the profile of this issue of standards at each of these levels.
Second, many American observers of BRI suspect that the initiative is a vehicle for narrow or short-term Chinese interests, or that it isn’t a genuinely far-sighted program for developing “win-win” cooperation. Such responses are often informed by the common Western view that China has a record of self-serving or counterproductive behavior in its economic relations with the developing world.
Finally, geopolitical aspects of the U.S.-China relationship significantly frame interpretations of BRI among many Americans. As China continues along its path toward becoming the world’s largest economy, it is at the same time perceived to be increasingly assertive, more accepting of risks, and more willing to alienate actors like the United States. BRI is naturally examined in light of these real or perceived trends.
Many of these concerns are legitimate and understandable, as they are grounded in a lack of clarity about China’s future direction and its impact on global economic regimes and norms. Indeed, both Chinese and American analysts envision BRI having major geopolitical implications. 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.
The current relationship between the United States and China is almost universally described as containing a mix of cooperation and rivalry. Areas of collaboration must provide a counterweight to areas of competition, so both nations have an interest in identifying issues and frameworks that transcend zero-sum geopolitics. In recent years, however, even once positive areas of the bilateral economic relationship have become sources of friction, challenging the assumption that economic interdependence alone can steady the relationship.
One bright spot in this increasingly complicated picture has been the expansion of U.S.-China cooperation to include addressing climate change. Chinese and American leadership in the COP-21 climate agenda has demonstrated the ability of the two nations to engage in positive-sum collaboration to promote a genuine and critical shared interest.
International sustainable development more broadly has the potential to be a transcending area that serves the interests of China, the United States, and the international community at large. BRI promises to provide global public goods in terms of increased connectivity that can result in improving life in developing countries and opening up economic opportunities for developed ones. The potential secondary benefits include greater international security and bolstered state capacity that follow from development.
Nonetheless, BRI’s positive potential often goes unrecognized in the United States. This is in part because it is viewed as an element of a broader strategic competition between the two countries, and in part because Chinese voices have done a poor job of explaining the initiative. Chinese and American policy communities can do more to establish clearer distinctions between areas of genuine competition and areas of shared interest to close perception gaps. This could reveal opportunities for important confidence building.
How should this be accomplished? In China, several points should be considered. First, officials and non-governmental advocates must understand that the “win-win” aspects of BRI and the initiative in general have been poorly communicated to American audiences. It can be very difficult to find comprehensive, authoritative sources of information on BRI in the English language. This can exacerbate perceptions that BRI is intended to exclude the United States.
More importantly, Chinese officials must work to promote high lending standards to demonstrate that BRI complements and advances the achievements of the existing international economic order instead of undermining it. Many Americans are apprehensive that China will challenge existing regimes and norms in ways that weaken developed states or create a race to the bottom in lending standards. Moreover, focusing BRI toward sustainable development and green energy will do much to convince foreigners of China’s commitment to a high-standards international order, increase global support for BRI, and reinforce China’s efforts to become a global leader.
Finally, Chinese state and non-state actors should take advantage of the American private sector’s considerable interest in BRI and improve outreach to this important group. American firms can serve important roles in BRI projects. 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.
For their part, Americans should view BRI realistically as an opportunity for selectively engaging with China. American interests won’t be served by all BRI projects, nor will American involvement be welcomed in all areas. Nonetheless, BRI must not be subsumed by a simplistic and categorical framing of competition between the two nations. U.S. policymakers should maintain open minds when assessing the impact of proposed BRI projects on American interest in places like Afghanistan or Central Asia more broadly. American and Chinese interests may overlap considerably in some regions or some issue areas, and this overlap should be exploited.
To help address a variety of policy differences and perception gaps, the U.S. and China should work together to establish a dedicated dialogue forum to discuss environmental, labor, and human rights standards in international development.Such a dialogue could take place in bilaterally in the S&ED or within a multilateral forum like the G20. The two nations could further build trust through coordinating development priorities. U.S. officials could develop a set of projects as candidates for BRI funding, some of which could then be selected by Chinese officials according to their complementarity to China’s interests. This would direct the two nations towards identifying common interests and initiate habits of cooperation in development.
Over the longer term, the two nations should create synergy between their very different, but complementary, strengths in international development. China should recognize that the U.S. has a great depth of experience in developing the “soft” infrastructure necessary for full economic and human development, and for ensuring political stability. This includes governance reform and capacity, health, education and building civil society. Americans should embrace the shorter-term economic impact of infrastructure investment which, when properly paired with an attention to governance and human development issues, is indispensable to generating the domestic motors of long-term sustainable growth.
Finally, both nations should recognize that environmental cooperation has been the signature achievement of U.S.-China cooperation in recent years. Addressing climate change is a key area for cooperation because it represents genuinely shared, critical interests. By expanding these efforts to include creating an environmentally sustainable global economy for the 21st Century and beyond, the U.S. and China can continue this trend of transcending competition while providing global public goods. The Belt and Road Initiative can be an important instrument for carrying out this task.
Like any major initiative, the true impact—and indeed meaning—of BRI will be determined through the course of its implementation as diversity actors engage with it and as Chinese policymakers emphasize different aspects to meet with changing exigencies. While BRI has the potential to contribute to competition between the U.S. and China, it could also be used to enhance cooperation. If this potential is to be realized, the initiative must be engaged and shaped with conscious efforts to meet this end. Americans should thus be clear-eyed about the potential strategic impact of BRI, but also remain alive to the possibilities it presents and not be categorically dismissive or suspicious. Chinese should in turn be responsive to American concerns about BRI, which are shared by many in Europe, India, and beyond. Such concerns identify the scope of potential obstacles and delineate the most productive paths forward.