China tells Donald Trump: we can help make America’s infrastructure great again

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is told that Chinese firms are willing to take part in plans to improve American infrastructure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 10:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 10:45am

China has offered to take part in US President Donald Trump’s US$1.5 trillion plan to repair and upgrade America’s infrastructure, saying it would complement Beijing’s own Belt and Road Initiative.

Yang Chuantang, party secretary of the Transport Ministry, made the remarks in Beijing at the ninth China-US Transportation Forum on Thursday.

“We are willing to work with the US side, under the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US plan for rebuilding infrastructure,” said Yang.

The forum was attended by US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is the first cabinet member from the Trump administration to visit China since the countries started a heated tit-for-tat over trade. 

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Chao – who also met Yang Jiechi, one of the country’s most senior diplomats, and Premier Li Keqiang during her visit – did not make any reference to the recent trade conflicts between the two countries at the forum, nor did she respond to the offer for China to participate in Trump’s infrastructure plan.

In February Trump unveiled a plan to spend US$1.5 trillion on repairing and upgrading America’s infrastructure, but only US$200 billion will come from direct federal spending.

“America’s infrastructure needs have been neglected,” Chao said. 

“The goal is to partner with other groups such as state and local governments, as well as allowing the private sector to address these needs.”

The proposal, which was part of Trump’s populist campaign promise to “make America great again”, has yet to advance through Congress because of disputes over funding.

A Chinese transport ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed scepticism about whether the Trump administration would be able to push through the plan.

“In China, when we have a plan, we do it. But you can’t say the same for the US,” the official said. “Obama also had an infrastructure plan, but not much was achieved.”

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A state-led push characterised by strong political and financial commitments has helped China make major upgrades to its transport infrastructure over the last decade.

With the help of technology transfer agreements between its state-owned rail companies and foreign suppliers eager to gain access to the market, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, which has become a symbol of the country’s technological progress and source of national pride.

China also began to export its technology and products in recent years, including contracts won by the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation to build subway carriages for Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the US.

But China’s “railway diplomacy” also hit the buffers when a US private company, Nevada-based XpressWest, called off a joint venture in 2016 with China Railway International (CRI) to build a high-speed link between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Los Angeles, California. 

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Speaking last week in New York, Elaine Chao’s predecessor dismissed the possibility that a brewing US-China trade war and “buy America” regulations instituted by Trump shortly after taking office would block Chinese investment in US infrastructure projects.

“There are too many needs and opportunities,” particularly among US state and local governments, Anthony Foxx, US transportation secretary under President Barack Obama, told the South China Morning Post.

“They may be in some cases core infrastructure assets, things that move people and goods. It may be in some cases operating companies that support the infrastructure. The US need is so great that I think enterprising people from around the world putting their best minds and best thoughts together about how to solve these problems will find partners.

“There’s not a bias against Chinese companies doing construction work in the US. I think there is a strong emphasis on ‘buy America’, sourcing materials in America and using American workers where feasible, but companies that are smart and recognise what the playing field is will have opportunities in the US.”

Trump issued a “buy American, hire American” executive order a year ago, which directed federal agencies to prioritise the use of American-made content in government projects and tightened the awarding of visas to foreign workers.

Many waivers to these laws have been granted as part of trade agreements meant to provide reciprocal access to procurement markets.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney