With the Belt and Road, China Is Way Ahead of the West on ‘Public Goods’

Far more than they appeared to at first glance, two news stories in recent days have framed America’s position in the world at the outset of Joe Biden’s presidency in unusually stark and powerful ways.

The first trumpeted a $400 billion investment agreement between Beijing and Tehran, with China vastly increasing its trade with Iran. It comes at a moment when the United States is hoping to force the Iranian government back to the negotiating table to reinstate and even broaden the international agreement aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The Trump administration withdrew from that deal, reimposing harsh sanctions on Iran that Biden hasn’t lifted.

The second news item, which received much less attention, was Biden revealing that he has suggested to U.S. allies, starting with the United Kingdom, that they try to blunt China’s many recent geopolitical advances by getting into the game of major international infrastructure projects and competing with the signature foreign policy initiative of the Xi Jinping era: the Belt and Road Initiative. “I suggested we should have, essentially, a similar initiative, pulling from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help,” Biden told reporters.

The first thing that must be said about such an American proposal, still presumably embryonic, is just how belated such an idea is. The United States stood by idly in the 1990s as China first began testing ideas about how to greatly expand its role in the global political economy. That is because those first steps came in Africa, a continent that Washington has always traditionally treated as an afterthought, or stepchild of the international system—as a place that generates thankless problems and few opportunities.

Back then, as a reporter for The New York Times, I listened as American diplomats in many African capitals told me that China’s building initiatives—first, stadiums and parliaments, and then airports, highways, ports and railways—wouldn’t amount to very much, and surely cast no political shade on the U.S. in Africa. Then, a decade later, and indeed up to the present, as all of these Chinese-built infrastructure projects steadily expanded, America’s rhetoric turned scornful and defensive. What China was really up to, it claimed, was setting up debt traps for guileless Africans who were implicitly clueless about their own self-interest and naively accepted Chinese terms without driving a hard bargain for themselves.

The biggest problem with this narrative is wide out in the open, exposed for anyone to see: Neither the U.S. nor its richest allies have proposed anything of substance to compete with China over the basic infrastructure so vitally needed by African countries. And yet few in American officialdom or among prominent commentators engage with this problem.

The way that China used its African development experiences as a laboratory for the rollout of something even bigger to come, both in its economic scope and geopolitical impact, has also gone widely unnoticed. When Xi announced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, the early excuses for not taking it seriously were as seductive as rationales to ignore China’s earlier work in Africa. The initiative, whose price tag has since been estimated at over $1 trillion, was not really coherent, its critics claimed; the numbers were inflated; the projects wouldn’t pay for themselves; and countries across Asia would resist, fearing domination by Beijing. Meanwhile, just as China had in Africa, the Belt and Road kept advancing, not only throughout Asia, but well into Europe, where Western countries like debt-strapped Greece sought out Chinese investment. Even Britain, traditionally Washington’s closest ally, has expressed interest in joining the Belt and Road, ignoring America’s warnings not to sign on to China’s initiative.

Neither the U.S. nor its richest allies have proposed anything of substance to compete with China over the basic infrastructure so vitally needed by African countries.

The moral of this story is less about Chinese economic or political prowess, though, than it is about the failure of the world’s richest states, mostly Western powers, to generate and support what are known as “public goods,” at least of the tangible, physical kind. Unlike China, the West has confused the idea of the provision of such goods with notions of aid, persuading itself that to help poorer societies address their development challenges is a matter of pure charity—surrendering wealth to the less fortunate.

The costs of this confusion are manifold. The most obvious one involves watching a geopolitical rival, China, advance unopposed. Another goes to the loss of business opportunities in what is often fancied as the “developing world,” meaning the portions of the planet where global population growth and much of its new wealth generation are concentrated. The final cost, and the most overlooked, is the opportunity to moderate international migration. There is tremendous denial involved here, with the West deluding itself that huge migratory shifts in the global population can be avoided in the decades ahead. Yet demographic growth and climate change will combine to ensure that ever larger numbers of people will move from the Global South to the West—and eventually, probably to East Asia as well. The best thing the U.S. and its allies in Europe can do is engage actively with less developed countries to make their economies as viable and prosperous as possible. That should come with the understanding that South-to-North migration will be an indispensable part of maintaining their own economic vitality in the face of demographic shifts in the West, with rapidly aging populations and falling birth rates.

These realities come together most glaringly in two regions of the world currently generating major refugee flows: West Africa and Central America. It is anything but a coincidence that the economic realities for people in these two regions are dismal and scarcely improving. Nor is it a coincidence that they hardly feel connected to the global economy in terms of their own productive possibilities at home.

If the history of Western empire and its post-colonial aftermath cannot explain all of this, it nonetheless plays an important and wrongly neglected role. West Africa was brought under French and British imperial dominance during the late-19th century. Soon after, a sprinkling of big, European-built ports were dug and railways laid on the continent. But France and Britain, and other European colonial powers, largely gave up on such infrastructure efforts in Africa by World War I. Instead, what ensued was a kind of low-intensity extraction, both of raw materials and of manpower, to help fight in European wars. With their independence, African countries have largely been left to their own devices economically. It is as if the attitude of Europeans and of the West more broadly has been to say, You can’t expect us to develop you.

The history is different in Central America, where the United States never had a formal empire, even if its informal one—through notorious corporate proxies like the United Fruit Company—was perfectly real. Fearful of revolution, Washington briefly awoke to the development needs of the region during the Cold War. But not since President John F. Kennedy’s regional development initiative, the Alliance for Progress, has Washington paid more than lip service to the needs of Central Americans for much more robust growth and economic opportunity.

The consequences of this post-imperial apathy in these two parts of the world can be seen in global economic rankings like the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Honduras ranks a lowly 132nd, with most of its neighbors clustered nearby. In West Africa, Senegal has long been considered one of France’s most successful colonial and post-colonial stories, drawing praise for its democracy and stability. Yet the U.N. ranks Senegal 168th on its Human Development Index, meaning that life for most its citizens is dire and not improving.

Countries like these represent seas of opportunity for China, and who can blame Beijing for making whatever connections it can? El Salvador signed a Belt and Road cooperation agreement with China in 2017, and Beijing is eyeing more infrastructure investments in Central America today; in 2018, Senegal became the first West African country to join the Belt and Road Initiative. These countries are seas of opportunity for the West, too, if only the U.S. and others would notice. But where economic development is concerned, few or no connections are being made, and the failures of this blindness will continue to be felt in lost opportunity costs.

Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, including most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.” You can follow him on Twitter @hofrench. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday.

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