The United States needs to get serious about the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its primary geopolitical tool, the BRI.
This week China hosts its third international conference focused on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the development program launched in 2013 by the CCP and its Chairman, Xi Jinping. Xi is hosting the event, which marks the tenth anniversary of the BRI. The Forum’s most notable (or notorious) guest is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who shared the dais along with Xi at the opening ceremonies.
Ostensibly an initiative to build infrastructure and revive trade links along the old Silk Road, the BRI is at its core a projection of China’s economic, industrial, and military power and ambitions. BRI is a tool of Chinese geopolitics, and it has been effective to date in recasting the new world order in Beijing’s image.
Some 150 countries have entered into various forms of agreement under the auspices of the BRI. Noting its desire to expand global peace and prosperity, Beijing touts over $1.0 trillion in investment across BRI’s projects. Most of this investment has centered on energy, transportation, and logistics infrastructure, along with mining and commodities. What is left unsaid is China’s strong hand in implementation, with influence that always reaches the heads of state and other powers in each country. Alongside the BRI have come military cooperation and other security arrangements with many BRI participating nations.
As much of the BRI’s investment has come with coercive terms, and often in the form of debt, borrower nations in Africa and elsewhere have begun to push back on BRI’s aggressive nature, lopsided benefit to China, and the prospect of debt servitude. China, for its part, now has to reconcile itself with the fact that many of the investments made over the past decade are uncommercial and will not see a profitable return. On a small scale this was manageable, but when the sums start to total in the trillions, even China’s vast treasury must sit up and take notice. This is all the more true as China’s domestic economy falters and its bad debt mounts.
One of the aspects most notable about this year’s BRI forum is the central importance of the relationship between China and Russia. Day one included a more than three hour meeting between Xi and Putin on the sidelines of the forum to discuss a number of sensitive matters between them. Topics included the conflicts in Ukraine, Israel, and francophone Africa, as well as commercial affairs such as exploration and development of the Arctic, a region of long-standing dispute between the nations.
While certainly not an equal partner, Russia has become China’s most important ally in the BRI and in the broader geopolitical chess game being played around the globe. Russia, essentially in a proxy war with the U.S. and NATO, has come to need China now more than ever.
As a geopolitical tool, BRI’s primary objective is to strengthen China’s power and influence while blocking and eventually reducing that of the United States. As part of the initiative, China’s is using not only its economic might but its soft power to sway the so-called “Global South” nations of Africa, Latin America, and Asia towards China-friendly policies.
On its side, the U.S. has been both slow and ineffective in responding to the challenge posed by China and the BRI. The U.S. has not taken the threat seriously enough, and as a result China’s influence around the world has continued to grow.
The U.S. has fared poorly in confronting the BRI in part because it has been unwilling or unable to counter Chinese investment in Africa and elsewhere. The U.S.’s soft power—the ability to influence and persuade, rather than coerce—has been degraded as a result of inattention, a shift in the values regime towards “wokism”— an ideology that does not travel well in most of the world, and abuse of its hard power tools including economic sanctions.
Unlike during the Cold War when a wider approach was taken, today the U.S. relies primarily on coercive hard powers and has neglected its soft powers. Both are necessary, but soft power may have greater potential for substantive and long-term cultural and political influence. As the U.S. has recently been reminded, dependence on hard power alone is ineffective. Hard powers, whether military or economic, are necessary but insufficient tools of sustainable geopolitical influence.
If the United States is serious about countering the threat that the CCP poses to freedom and democracy, it is going to have to dramatically shift its priorities with regard to economic development. The BRI provides a playbook, but so does the U.S.’s own history from the postwar period.
A commitment by the United States to countering BRI would necessitate a shift in priorities away from competing demands such as Ukraine, support of NATO, the Green New Deal, and many of the core pillars of “Bidenomics.” This will be nearly impossible so long as the deficit-debt-inflation doom loop continues to spiral. And it is certainly not possible while both the White House and the U.S. Congress remain paralyzed and ineffective.
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