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The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

May 20 , 2019

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of both the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – infrastructure development and investment initiatives that would stretch from East Asia to Europe. The title was a mouth full and a bold plan for what was then, a bold new leader. 

The long-winded initiative was shortened to the One Belt-One Road Initiative and has since morphed into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as New Silk Road. It is considered one of the most ambitious cross-national infrastructure investment projects ever conceived.

According to Brookings, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a leading indicator of the scale of China’s global ambitions. The intent behind the initiative — whether economic or strategic — has raised significant concern in the United States and elsewhere. While Beijing portrays the infrastructure development initiative as a benign investment and development project that is economically beneficial to all parties — and in certain cases clearly has been — there are strategic manifestations that contradict this depiction. Washington is skeptical of the initiative, warning of the risks to recipients and the harm it will cause to America’s strategic interests abroad.

All great powers eventually look to expand their horizons and China is proving to be no exception as it attempts to regain its ‘fuqiang’– its wealth and power. It has since begun to spread its wings. 

Originally conceptualized as a “going out” strategy to seek outlets for productive use of excess resources and to diversify China’s foreign asset holdings, Beijing later branded the effort as the Belt and Road Initiative. Multiple nations have signed on or indicated an interest in doing so, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population.

The original initiative began with a predominantly economic focus, as America stumbled internationally under President Trump even as President Xi warned, using Premier Deng’s cautionary words, to “keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead- but aim to do something big”. While the BRI counts for that “something big,” it scarcely carries a low profile. It has also taken on both a greater economic, military and security profile over time.

It should come as no surprise that when China hangs a welcome mat to invest in needy nations, many tin cups rattle. The BRI has attracted interest from dozens of countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. China is offering a solution to problems that require international assistance to address. But let’s be very clear: this is not China’s altruism at work. The BRI is a money-making investment and an opportunity for China to increase its connectivity. Some less generous investors would argue that China is wrapping their hands around the throats of needy nations in an attempt to gain a geopolitical superior position.

The Council on Foreign Relations reports that smaller nations along the BRI path are becoming increasingly unsettled. The United States shares the concern of some in Asia that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for Chinese institutions, regional development, and military expansion.

China is also, once again, showing their ability to pivot, adapt, and modify their internal and external efforts to maintain support and control. As The Wall Street Journal points out, Chinese President Xi has pledged a new direction for the BRI after hearing complaints from partner nations. He has made pledges to ensure financial sustainability of infrastructure projects following partner countries’ worries of being saddled with burdensome debt.

Under U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington has raised alarm over Beijing’s actions, even though Washington has abandoned some efforts to isolate China and deepen its own ties with economic partners in the region.

The BRI was launched together with the 2015 “Made in China 2025” – a state-led industrial policy that seeks to make China dominant in global high-tech manufacturing. The program aims to use government subsidies, mobilize state-owned enterprises, and pursue intellectual property acquisition to catch up with—and then surpass—Western technological prowess in advanced industries.  

China’s Rise at the U.S’ Demise?

Between the BRI and Made in China 2025, the U.S. sees a huge economic and security risk to its domination as the 21st unfolds. 

President Trump argues that “Made in China 2025” relies on discriminatory treatment of foreign investment, forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft, and cyber espionage. These existential threats, together with US domestic politics, led the US to levy tariffs on Chinese goods and block several Chinese-backed acquisitions of technology firms.

With the political division in America at a boiling point – perhaps not this hot since the days of the Civil War – President Xi has provided Democrats, Republicans, and President Trump an opportunity to rail China. The China “threat” is perhaps the only thing partisan Democrats and Republicans can agree on today. 

The Institute for China-America Studies sees the BRI is as a seriously-pursued initiative with the potential to significantly impact the economic and political future of Eurasia. It is sometimes viewed as a deliberate attempt to economically marginalize the United States and to create a Eurasian sphere of influence– perhaps as a pretext for expanding China’s overseas military presence.

However, the overall response to BRI has been ambivalent, with the Trump Administration expressing frequent concerns about standards, the adequacy of Chinese development practices, and the erosion of Western development norms.

Clearly China saw an opening after the 2008 U.S. economic meltdown and did not expect a disrupter-in-Chief in the form of Donald Trump to be elected. Trump’s unpredictable behavior has caught the Chinese off-guard. 

A One-Way Road?

China is investing at home and abroad in initiatives that only make them stronger: infrastructure, education, technology, AI and ‘big data’ while attempting to buy friends around the globe. At the same time, America is disinvesting in these same things.

The issue begs for America to create a national strategy in order to counter the threat of China’s rise. We need to invest in our future if we wish to remain “great’ and number one. Whining about China is not a winning strategy. We also need to understand that our greatest fear should not be China’s successes, but its potential failures. With thoughtful American leadership, China’s rise need not come at our demise.

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