In a recent op-ed in the South China Morning Post, senior advisor to president-elect Donald Trump and former CIA Director James Woolsey proposed a “warming” of the US’ disposition to both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Describing President Obama’s opposition to the AIIB as a “strategic mistake,” Woolsey indicated the need for the US to be more accepting of China’s global leadership in general. A survey of common American interpretations of the OBOR initiative reveals the degree to which Woolsey’s proposal to the next president is swimming against the tide. Whether Trump can effect such a warming — assuming he even takes Woolsey’s advice on the matter — will involve addressing many, often negative, perceptions.
The OBOR initiative has elicited a wide range of opinions in policy discussions within the US. Depending on whether one is an investor, an executive at an engineering or logistics firm, or a defense planner, OBOR can signify different things to different people. OBOR is generally regarded as having the potential to drastically change the economic and even political landscape of Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia and Europe.
The views expressed in American circles are essentially uncertain as to the intentions, short-term success, and the long-term implications of OBOR. Along with ominous interpretations of Chinese objectives, one can find many assessments of potential benefits for the US or areas in which OBOR can enhance US-China cooperation. The caution displayed in assessments of OBOR and prescriptions for US responses are reflective of the broader uncertainty that many Americans have regarding long-term Chinese strategic intentions.
Along with occasional optimism about the positive effects of these changes, American assessments describe a variety of concerns regarding OBOR’s economic viability and its implications for international order or American interests. OBOR can be viewed by one analyst as being “an entirely mercantile endeavor,” and by another as a strategic gambit aimed at establishing Chinese hegemony or even laying the foundations for a “Sino-centric” world order. Some see the initiative as a risky act of hubris that could exacerbate China’s economic slowdown, while others see it as having the potential to “reestablish Eurasia as the largest economic market in the world [and] effect a shift away from the dollar-based global financial system.”
Many American analysts share significant reservations about OBOR due to their lack of confidence in its future direction. One analyst asks, “[is OBOR] a soft power initiative, a hard power initiative, or hard power wrapped in soft power?” Many specific concerns speak directly to the question of whether OBOR is genuinely open and inclusive and creates global public goods, or whether it will instead create “club goods” for China and its more closely aligned partners. For example, some Americans wonder whether OBOR facilities such as ports in Bangladesh, Iran, and Kenya will be open to all or just Chinese partners and interests.
There may be a glimmer of hope for development programs like OBOR to facilitate cooperation rather than competition between the US and China.
One of the most common concerns Americans have toward Chinese-led initiatives is about standards. This near-ubiquitous theme can be heard among scholars and statesmen alike, including President Obama. While American concerns about AIIB’s lending standards have largely been assuaged, many in the US, including Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew, are less confident about the lending standards of China’s development and policy banks. As a transparent, multilateral organization, the AIIB is often seen as “lean, clean and green,” but as is well recognized in the US, the AIIB will only contribute a small share of OBOR funding. The bulk of the initiative will be financed by entities like China’s policy banks, the Silk Road Fund, and commercial banks, which will continue to receive disbursements in the tens of billions of dollars earmarked for OBOR lending. The perennial issue of standards looms large over these entities.
Questions about standards are grounded in several layers of concern. Most simply, American commentators are concerned that Chinese lending initiatives do not do enough to preserve the environment or protect labor rights in recipient countries. At a deeper level, there is a sense that China’s perceived indifference to these things grants them a competitive advantage over Western actors in currying favor with developing nations. At the strategic level, some Americans fear that China will use its economic clout to degrade, undermine, or replace the liberal norms that have prevailed in the postwar international economic order.
Uncertainties about OBOR voiced in the US are in many ways symptomatic of a more general uncertainty about the aims of Chinese foreign policy over the long-term. As China’s ability to influence international order grows, Americans are unsure about the principles undergirding its policies. Perceptions that Beijing’s actions in other areas like the South China Sea are overly assertive or conducted with little regard for the interests of other states undermine confidence among Americans that Chinese foreign policy genuinely embodies a “win-win” approach.
In fact, the juxtaposition of the maritime issues with OBOR has yielded a wide range of interpretations. Some analysts see territorial disputes as unintentionally undermining China’s real agenda of promoting mutually beneficial economic ties. Some who espouse this view express confidence that OBOR will ultimately have a stabilizing and positive effect on Chinese policy by directing its focus toward positive-sum issue areas. On the other hand, many American analysts believe that China has recently become more willing to assertively advance its own interests, is more willing to risk damaging relationships with other nations, or is confidently seeking to erode the US’ stature in Asia and beyond. Many who see such assertiveness in China’s recent behavior are likely to apply this framework to OBOR. This results in the inference that more zero-sum geopolitical calculations must be behind OBOR as well.
If the Trump administration seeks to “warm” to Chinese leadership in international development, many of these perceptions must be addressed. This would require, in part, some clarification from Chinese authorities about how the US and China could cooperate in Eurasian economic development if the Trump administration attempted to reset the relationship in this domain. The new president would have to credibly reassure Washington skeptics that the initiative is not meant to isolate the US from the global economy. For his part, the president-elect seems unlikely to care as much as his predecessors about the standards that so often form the basis for criticizing China’s international economic policies. It is also possible that Trump, a most unorthodox of American political figures, will display some degree of willingness to challenge the status quo in Washington regarding long-term strategic thinking. These considerations suggest that there may be a glimmer of hope for development programs like OBOR to facilitate cooperation rather than competition between the US and China, but overtures from both sides are needed for this to take place.
(This essay is adapted from the larger study, American Perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative: Causes of Concern, Possibilities for US-China Cooperation.)