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Three Reasons Why the U.S. Should Not Compete with the Belt and Road Initiative

China’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 dramatically changed images of the Silk Road. Far from camels and caravans, the BRI is a Chinese multi-billion-dollar infrastructure investment platform to create ultra-modern connectivity on a trans-continental scale. It now involves more than 126 countries and 29 international organizations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

Unfortunately, America’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) is not as familiar as the BRI. The U.S. announced it in 2017 to counterbalance China’s BRI. The FOIP has three pillars: security, economics, and governance. Although there are significant overlaps between the FOIP and the BRI, coordination between the U.S. and China is not likely due to mutual hostility.

Nevertheless, facts suggest that the U.S. should coordinate, if not cooperate, with China’s BRI.

First, the BRI can complement what the U.S. hopes to achieve through the FOIP: economic prosperity and free trade. There is a huge demand-supply gap of infrastructure investments in the developing world, which cannot be filled solely by Western developed countries. China is well equipped to fill this gap with the mega infrastructure development projects under the BRI. Enhanced connectivity through the BRI will improve market access to the least developed countries in Asia and Africa.

Second, the BRI can provide business opportunities to U.S. companies. The recent expansion of the BRI to the advanced economies, such as Italy and Switzerland, means increasing opportunities for U.S. businesses to be involved in the projects. Also, the participation in the BRI of Latin America, a “backyard” of the U.S., will create space for U.S. companies to build a beneficial relationship with their Chinese counterparts.

Third, finding common ground with the BRI can ease U.S.-China tensions and contribute to regional stability. Although economic and military confrontations entwine the U.S. and China, the two countries can still seek mutual agreement. No country in the region wants to be caught in the middle of the two great powers, nor forced to choose one of their initiatives. The U.S., the strongest nation in the world, should hold out a hand to encourage China’s peaceful rise.

Some point out the downsides of the BRI, such as debt trap, corruption, labor conflicts, and environmental degradation. The recent renegotiation of, or withdrawal from BRI projects by Malaysia, the Maldives, and Sierra Leone illuminate the debt risk of the BRI projects. Yet China is well aware of these drawbacks and is trying to address international criticism of the BRI. At the second BRI summit held this April, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to improve the quality and transparency of the BRI projects with a greater emphasis on due diligence. He also welcomed international participation in the initiative. Several studies find signs of improvement.

Given the economic interdependence between China and Asia-Pacific nations, it is not realistic to exclude Chinese investments from the regional economy. Even Japan and India, the Quad of the FOIP, expressed willingness to cooperate with the BRI. An increasing number of Western companies are also showing an appetite for BRI projects. In this situation, U.S. hostility toward the BRI may send a wrong signal to international audiences as if the U.S. is projecting a geopolitical power game, rather than a genuine wish for regional security and development.

Therefore, the U.S. should stop competing with the BRI, and start engaging China to improve the BRI. To counter a powerful myth of the BRI, the U.S. should create its own narrative: the U.S. is a reliable world leader and seeks to harness China’s BRI for its own interests as well as regional peace and stability. At the end of the day, this effort will achieve trust-building, free and open economy, and good governance, which exactly are the Free and Open Indo-Pacific’s goals.