Illustration: Craig Stephens
Richard Heydarian
Richard Heydarian

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.

In the past decade, infrastructure development has become a defining priority of governments and the pivot of geopolitical competition. There is a great sense of urgency, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warning of a US$907 billion gap in annual infrastructure investments across developing Asia alone.
No wonder that China’s Belt and Road Initiative, covering more than 2,600 projects across the Eurasian land mass, has attracted tremendous attention in recent years. Reactions range from welcome across the developing world to scepticism among more developed nations.
In response, the Biden administration is gathering global allies to create an alternative to China’s initiative, chief among them the Blue Dot Network (BDN), with Australia and Japan, as well as the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative with fellow Group of 7 (G7) countries. The profusion of such acronyms should be a cause for celebration rather than alarm, since it represents an indispensably constructive competition among superpowers for the hearts and minds of the world.

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.


Belt and Road Initiative explained

Belt and Road Initiative explained

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.

Post-war Japan also realised that the road to rapid economic recovery and winning back its estranged neighbours was through development aid and infrastructure projects, hence its establishment of the ADB in Manila in the early 1960s.

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.

It was within this context of Western retreat that China, now flush with cash and strategic purpose, stepped into the fray. Aware of its ancient glories and intent on turbocharging development in its interior regions and augmenting economic connectivity with other emerging markets, Beijing envisioned a modern version of the legendary Silk Road.
Thus, what began as provincial-level and private-sector-driven projects morphed into a Chinese state-led mega initiative. At first, the West tried to ignore China’s ambitious plan, then gradually began to portray the initiative as a predatory investment scheme to lure, trap and stealthily colonise smaller nations.
Soon, Western powers and sceptics began to use the term “ debt trap diplomacy” to question the programme’s geopolitical intentions. US President Joe Biden, however, has indicated a different approach that is focused on “providing an affirmative, positive alternative vision for the world”.
There are three reasons to welcome this shift in Washington’s approach towards the Belt and Road Initiative and, more broadly, the real and urgent infrastructure development conundrum. First, it marks a needed corrective to decades of neoliberal folly. A major reason the United States struggled to provide an alternative to China’s 5G network projects is because of the absence of a robust industrial policy at home.
This explains why, for instance, the former American telecoms giant Motorola was left to rot instead of remaining a key player in the global telecommunications market.

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.


China says it built 130,000 5G base stations as of the end of 2019

China says it built 130,000 5G base stations as of the end of 2019

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.

In critical regions such as Southeast Asia, for instance, Japan’s total infrastructure investment pledges of US$367 billion are actually larger than China’s US$255 billion. Meanwhile, the West and Japan are still the predominant source of foreign direct investment in the region.
Under the B3W initiative, the US and its G7 allies are intent on spurring state-led and private-sector-driven investments to “help narrow the US$40-plus trillion infrastructure need in the developing world, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Finally, competition means there will be greater pressure on Beijing to improve and fine-tune the Belt and Road Initiative and related projects. The BDN and B3W are not about matching China’s pledges dollar for dollar but, instead, reinforcing global standards on transparency, ecological sustainability and good governance.
In the past decade, China has decided to forego full veto powers in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to address concerns over transparency and governance. More recently, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need for fiscal and environmental sustainability in projects, as well as greater private-sector participation.

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”