The United States must seize the opportunity presented by a Chinese initiative that envisions the creation of land and sea routes that will span three continents and link more than sixty countries, according to experts who participated in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on October 4.
Making the case for engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, said: “[The BRI] is a generational project and it will take a long time,” but, “the US needs to engage now.”
“We don’t have to agree to every component of the Belt and Road… we don’t have to buy into the whole package,” he added.
C. Boyden Gray, a vice chair of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors, said the United States could miss out if it does not get involved in the BRI because “China and Europe will have the opportunity of teaming up and setting the standards for everything that is commercial.”
“[I]f we get left out of that, we could find ourselves really in a backwater,” said Gray, who served as counsel to the vice president in the Reagan administration and later as White House counsel to US President George H.W. Bush.
Luft and Gray were joined in a panel discussion by John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, and Miyeon Oh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative. Barry Pavel, senior vice president and director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, moderated the discussion.
The more than trillion-dollar BRI—meant as a sort of revival to the ancient Silk Road trading routes—has the potential to secure China’s trade dominance in the world and its booming economy.
In May of this year, US President Donald J. Trump’s administration reached a trade agreement with Beijing on a broad range of measures aimed at improving access of US goods to China. Despite this agreement, however, the Trump administration has largely ignored the BRI, and not one congressional hearing has been convened to discuss the initiative.
Luft argued for what he called “constructive participation”—publicly embracing the overall vision of regional connectivity while only actively supporting those elements of the initiative that align with the Trump administration’s geopolitical strategy rationale.
“This initiative cannot be looked upon purely under a geopolitical lens,” said Luft, because in doing so we would “miss the big picture.” He suggested integrating a geo-economic and a geopolitical perspective into the US approach.
Luft participated via video in the event to discuss his recent publication, “Silk Road 2.0: US Strategy Toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” The publication comes on the eve of Trump’s first trip to China as president, scheduled for November. According to the White House, the trip is intended to “strengthen the international resolve to confront the North Korean threat.”
Luft contended, however, that this narrow approach is misguided. “US-China relations need more areas of cooperation. Most of our conversation with China is about North Korea, the South China Sea, and trade. But none of those issues are resolvable… those issues can at best be managed,” he said.
According to Luft, US involvement in the BRI could help tackle a much less daunting issue: poverty. “More than two billion people [in Asia] do not have access to electricity, Internet, transportation, communication, etc.,” he said, “and that really undermines global growth at a time when we need global growth.”
“America can benefit a lot from this Belt and Road,” said Luft, because it will create infrastructure that will give US companies greater access to consumers who are currently difficult to reach.
“Maybe what’s good for [China] could also be good for us,” he said, quickly adding that US companies must be given an “opportunity to compete.”
Herbst said the BRI might offer the United States a bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia. “[The BRI] is a direct threat to Russia’s historic interests, and to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s own agenda,” he said. “For Russia to react correctly to the growing Chinese presence in their neighborhood—especially in Central Asia—they’ll have to [work with] the United States.”
In addressing China’s motivation for initiating the BRI, Oh said it “is an answer to China’s overcapacity problems,” and is an attempt to “move from manufacturing and export-driven growth to high domestic consumption.” Oh argued that the BRI has also helped China create a positive image of itself in its neighborhood.
“This is a legacy project for [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” added Luft.
China’s 19th Party Congress, which is slated for later in October and will determine China’s economic policy for the next several years, is not anticipated by Luft to “have a major impact on the execution of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
Despite Luft’s emphasis on the BRI’s geo-economic implications, his enthusiasm for US involvement is multifaceted. He argued that the United States needs to ensure that the BRI “is not used as a pretext to change the status quo in areas of the world where the situation is quite sensitive.”
Caleb Darger is a communications intern at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @CalebDarger