An American Belt and Road Initiative?

Wall Street Journal

China is funding massive projects all over the world and gaining influence. The U.S. can do the same.

February 18, 2021
Jim Webb

President Biden last week announced a Pentagon task force to review military policy toward China, commenting that America will “meet the China challenge” and “win the competition of the future.” From its makeup it’s clear the review will look for ways to move U.S. policy toward a greater emphasis on diplomatic solutions. But in defining America’s future national strategy, the new administration should take this process a step further. 

China’s long-term strategy stretches beyond the issues of trade policy, great power rivalry, nuclear proliferation and military expansion. Largely unexamined in the public debate is China’s pursuit of massive infrastructure projects in developing countries, where it seeks to cement long-term relations. These economic and diplomatic ties are an extension of power—with China’s military and security involvement justified as necessary to protect its interests. 

China seeks to be the world’s most powerful country, and its Belt and Road Initiative is an important component of its strategy. As a safeguard to our diplomatic and economic health the U.S. should recalibrate its own approach to often ignored nations, even as we continue to meet the more traditional national security challenges that dominate the headlines.

Much of the world is becoming uneasy with China’s unremitting aggression on its home turf in Asia. Over the past decade China has been calling its own shots, rejecting international law and public opinion while signaling that it intends to replace the U.S. as the region’s dominant military, diplomatic and economic power. Beijing has taken down Hong Kong’s democracy movement; started military spats with India; disrupted life for tens of millions by damming the headwaters of the Mekong River; conducted what the U.S. government now deems a campaign of genocide against Muslim Uighurs; escalated tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands; consolidated its illegal occupation of islands in the South China Sea; and made repeated bellicose gestures designed to test the international community’s resistance to “unifying” the “renegade province” of Taiwan. 

While any of these and similar moves could expand into major crises, they already have raised suspicions across the international community. The BRI has to date remained a separate matter, but the cumulative effect of Beijing’s relentless provocations has given pause to many of China’s third-world partners in economic development. 

The Biden administration can take advantage of this pause by ordering a major revamp of America’s foreign policy in much of the developing world, where China has charged ahead of the U.S. with its coordinated, structural approach to improving infrastructure and fostering long-term relations. An international system reliant on an authoritarian, ethnocentric Chinese government is not in the best interests of those nations and threatens U.S. interests and international stability.

The need for major international investment in Asia, Latin America and, most of all, Africa are obvious. Africa is a demographic explosion waiting to happen. Its population has quadrupled since 1970, from 363 million to 1.4 billion people, and continues to grow at a rate far above other continents. Of the top 30 countries in the world’s annual population growth for 2020, 28 were in Africa. This dramatic growth isn’t the result of extended lifespans but of birth rates. The median age on the continent is below 20 years old. The countries with the 10 highest birth rates in the world are all in Africa. The overall African fertility rate is 4.4 children per woman. Asia’s rate is half of that at 2.2. In Japan it is 1.4, in Singapore 1.1, and in South Korea it is one child per woman. 

Economic and governmental systems in Africa have not kept up. In 2020 only one of the top 30 countries as measured by gross domestic product was in Africa (No. 27 Nigeria). China has sought to cultivate favor with needier countries, some with less sophisticated regimes. Lacking alternatives, many African governments have signed on. As of Jan., 2021, 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have signed memoranda of understanding on China’s BRI. 

Americans can do it better. U.S. leaders should implement a comprehensive, coordinated national policy that moves into this vacuum, in Africa and elsewhere, combining sophisticated diplomacy, security guarantees, and the innovative energy of America’s business sector. These are not lost causes. They are unrecognized opportunities. Despite our recent turbulence, the U.S. remains the country of choice throughout the world. 

If the Biden administration can put together a viable program that combines enthusiastic leadership with incentives and a requirement that American companies be substantially involved in any supported project, wherever American businesses and diplomats go, they will be welcomed. The Belt and Road strategy was specifically designed to solidify China’s global power and influence, its strategic framework the result of more than a decade of government planning. The model for an American plan already exists in the structure of our government and our society. A major effort by the U.S., based on the credibility of our tested business model and devoid of colonial aspirations, could jump-start developing economies, improve our own, and inspire further evolution of free societies globally.

Inspirational thought often precedes major changes that seem improbable at the outset. The Peace Corps was merely an idea when President Kennedy proposed it, as was putting “a man on the moon.” President Nixon’s administration finally did land on the moon, and surprisingly opened up China. With a firm, large-scale American commitment, developing nations could grow and dramatically contribute to the world’s economy. Through it, America could reinforce its image as a force for freedom and earned wealth. As the decades pass, America would be remembered as the nation that truly opened up the world.

Mr. Webb is the Distinguished Fellow at Notre Dame’s International Security Center. He served as Navy secretary (1987-88) and a Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia (2007-13).