Why the US-led response to China’s belt and road is a cause for celebration, not alarm
- The Blue Dot Network and Build Back Better World initiatives signal constructive competition among superpowers for the hearts and minds of the world
- The infrastructure plans could bring about better, more affordable investment options for developing nations and help reduce geopolitical competition
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” the saying attributed to the great poet Maya Angelou goes. As for 21st-century geopolitics, people may forget what leaders said or how nations behaved in the past, but they will never forget concrete assistance, especially in terms of large infrastructure projects.
The French Emperor Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte was arguably the first modern leader to truly appreciate the importance of massive infrastructure projects to political capital and prestige. Thanks to his patronage, the great urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann oversaw the late-19th-century transformation of Paris into the architectural marvel that stands today.
The construction of sprawling boulevards and gorgeous gardens went hand in hand with the more mundane renovation of sewers, aqueducts and overcrowded flats. These men knew in their hearts that infrastructure development could have both a comprehensive impression and lasting effect on civilisations.
Despots and dictators have realised that building colossal monuments and modern highways is the closest someone can get to political immortality.
Meanwhile, American leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower empowered the federal state and oversaw massive projects that changed American lives forever. The advent of neoliberal economics in the 1980s, however, precipitated a gradual retreat of Western governments from the infrastructure and development planning landscape.
The Biden administration has realised that, to compete with China, the US should become more competitive itself in developing new technologies in conjunction with allies, hence the announcement of a US$4.5 billion joint US-Japan hi-tech initiative this year.
Second, the US-led response to China’s initiative is far from meaningless posturing but, rather, paves the way for healthy economic competition among the superpowers. The West and Japan have lots to offer in terms of technical capacity, development aid and research and development.
Ultimately, infrastructure investments might bring about better, more affordable investment options for developing nations and help attenuate geopolitical competition. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “better build-build than war-war”.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”