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Could China’s Huge Belt and Road Initiative Precipitate a New Cold War?

Could China’s Huge Belt and Road Initiative Precipitate a New Cold War?

James Bowen | Thursday, March 15, 2018

It is revealing of current American political obsessions that a recent book about the Marshall Plan’s relationship to the Cold War might be seen first and foremost as having lessons for today’s troubled ties between the United States and Russia. In that book, Benn Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that with the Marshall Plan’s launch in 1947, the U.S. and the Soviet Union “became irrevocably committed to securing their respective spheres of influence.”

Yet despite widespread concern about Russia, the most consequential great power struggle today is the one between the U.S. and China. This, moreover, is a relationship with more direct parallels to what Steil and others recognize as a key dynamic underpinning the Cold War’s origins: rival bids for economic and strategic influence, typically motivated as much by mutual American and Soviet suspicions concerning the other’s actions than by their own discrete objectives.

Indeed, the Marshall Plan is now the most common touchstone for analysts contending with the implications of the nearly trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, China’s huge international infrastructure and development plan. Beijing’s major play for a dominant role in regional and global affairs in the 21st century is, in fact, some 12 times larger than its postwar precursor.

While Beijing’s increasingly powerful leader, Xi Jinping, calls his signature foreign policy vision a “road for peace” of mutually beneficial development, it ultimately mirrors the Marshall Plan in terms of its concurrent self-interest. Whereas the Marshall Plan deepened Europe’s economic ties to the U.S. and protected liberal democracy on the continent, the Belt and Road Initiative puts China’s economic needs above all else, while seeking to expand its sphere of influence in the face of what Chinese officialdom sees as Washington-led containment.

As far as Cold War antecedents are concerned, there are worrying parallels too between the initial Soviet response to American assistance in Western Europe and how the U.S. and its allies seem to be responding to what they see as the threat of the Belt and Road Initiative. This could have similarly dramatic results in the next few decades.

In February, for example, media in Australia reported that that country was working with the U.S., India and Japan to establish an alternative to Beijing’s project to crisscross Eurasia with new railways, tunnels and bridges. While still unconfirmed, such a move would build on the four countries’ growing security cooperation through the so-called “quad” arrangement and what all increasingly profess is a commitment to maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” These are efforts decidedly focused on countering China’s challenge to long-established regional and global security dynamics and liberal internationalist norms.

While any quad-developed plan will take some time to fully materialize, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and U.S. President Donald Trump announced a bilateral alliance in March to spur development of South Asian and Southeast Asian infrastructure for the import of liquefied natural gas. In targeting key areas on Beijing’s “new Silk Road,” this could be the first volley in a potential clash of geo-economic visions.

Until now, apparent alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative have emerged either unilaterally, in the case of Japan’s ramped-up development aid, which it calls its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure,” or multilaterally. Yet multilateral pitches have been more open to some form of Chinese involvement. These include the economic connectivity agendas of APEC, in which Beijing is a member, and ASEAN, with which it has strong institutional links.

But if the more muscular and decidedly China-skeptical countries that make up the quad launch a clear rival to the Belt and Road Initiative, it could risk reigniting Beijing’s fears of containment. After all, the Chinese Communist Party’s own vision of “marching west” was at least partly motivated by fears arising from the Obama-era Asia pivot and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the U.S.

Rival geo-economic visions from great powers and their partners can precipitate a feedback loop of escalations that ultimately undermine peace and security.

One of the most striking aspects of the Marshall Plan was that America initially envisioned the participation of the Soviet Union and the countries in its orbit. However, recognizing what its ambassador to Washington called “the outlines of a Western European bloc directed against us,” Moscow subsequently rejected the overture and developed its rival Molotov Plan. These competing economic visions were soon accompanied by the adversarial military blocs of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and everything that followed.

Beijing, for its part, has extended participation in the Belt and Road Initiative to the U.S. and its allies. Yet among the four quad countries, only India has formally signed on, and even New Delhi seems increasingly skeptical of the strategic implications. The Indian government refused to send a delegate to a 2017 forum in Beijing that Xi held to promote the project.

Given the history of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War, the Belt and Road Initiative can’t be dismissed as lacking geostrategic intent simply because it is open to the participation of China’s great rival and its allies. More importantly, rival geo-economic visions from great powers and their partners can precipitate a feedback loop of escalations that ultimately undermine peace and security.

Any ill-conceived efforts to push back against China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, including its attempts to influence politics in other countries, may backfire, or at least lead to less than ideal outcomes. The unnamed Australian official who leaked the details about the supposed four-way bid to counter China’s Belt and Road preferred to describe it as an “alternative” rather than a “rival.” That may sound innocuous enough, but it may not alleviate Chinese concerns or head off any repercussions.

In the age of a Chinese president now accustomed to speaking unabashedly of his country as a great power, the best way of thinking of any Belt and Road-like plans drawn up outside Beijing may be as a “parallel” or perhaps “complement.” They should work less to constrain Beijing’s plans, in size and scale, and instead to modulate their least desirable outcomes.

Closer engagement by the likes of the quad could even look to emulate the kind of agreements China has signed with institutions such as the United Nations Development Program, which seeks to align Beijing’s vision with the similarly wide-ranging yet more virtuous Sustainable Development Goals.

Such an approach need not abandon the essential character of what the U.S. and its allies could offer countries seeking to resist Chinese dependence and all that it brings, such as the unmanageable debt burdens with which Beijing often saddles poorer countries. It would also have the important distinction of reflecting historical awareness about the limitations of seeking to counter a great power’s influence through rival economic plans based on a zero-sum game.

James Bowen is a research fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre and the author of two upcoming papers on the Belt and Road Initiative from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Future Directions International.


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