Intelligence Squared is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides a forum for balanced and intelligent debate. On the debate stage, leading foreign policy experts from across the political spectrum consider diverse opinions on America's foreign policy with China.
U.S. as the Most Dominant
Power in Asia?
The Belt and Road Initiative
“There are lots of countries in the world willing to do Beijing’s bidding politically because China is the only country that is able to implement a long-term strategy [The Belt and Road Initiative] and put cash behind it.” - Ian Bremmer, President and Founder of the Eurasia Group
In 2013, on a diplomatic visit to Kazakhstan and Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jingping announced his framework for a massive infrastructure project titled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).4 The initiative will create land and sea routes across Asia, Africa, and Europe, influence 71 economies along the BRI corridors, and includes one-third of world trade and gross domestic product (GDP).5
China's massive venture has caused some to question whether the undertaking will lead to a strategic return on investment. Some have gone so far as to say the BRI will be a trillion-dollar blunder.
Against the Motion: The BRI is a Trillion-Dollar Blunder
In the 2018 debate, Unresolved: The Techonomic Cold War with China, debaters Ian Bremmer, Michèle Flournoy, and Parag Khanna all voted against the motion: that the initiative will be a trillion-dollar blunder for Beijing. “The RAND Corporation conducted a recent study looking at the trade linkages between countries that are part of the Belt and Road and concluded it’s a win-win,” Khanna said. Khanna, a founding member and partner at FutureMap, has backpacked through countries linked to the BRI for the past two decades. Khanna said that in his travels, he has seen how the BRI has reconnected countries across Afroeurasia.
“The Belt-and-Road initiative really began well before it had a name,” said Khanna, “ You know, we used to call it the Silk Road, and in a way, the cross-roads of Asia are knitting themselves back together through this process of infrastructural connectivity across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.”
Seen by some as an early attempt at globalization,6 the old trade route connected Asia with important trade partners in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
While interconnectivity could lead to increased trade and economic development, Khanna argued the BRI does not strictly benefit China.
“Beijing built lots of roads, but all roads will not lead to Beijing,” said Khanna.
China foreign policy experts Michèle Flournoy and Ian Bremmer said that the BRI could be used to leverage greater political and economic influence in Asia.
“The BRI will enable China to gain a strategic foothold and exert influence in key countries,” said Flournoy, the former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy.
Citing that the BRI model has worked in places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Greece, Flournoy said the initiative will open new export markets for China, promote Chinese currency, reduce foreign tariffs, increase Chinese access to trade, and achieve greater regional political influence.
“China is the alternative new leader to the United States,” said Flournoy, “you can turn to them and rely on investment for your country, to be a force for good.” With America’s perceived withdrawal from the world stage, Flournoy argued the Chinese could become a global leader through the BRI.
Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of the Eurasia Group, said the BRI’s impact will be felt beyond Asia. “In Peru, they do about a third of their business with the U.S., a third of their trade with China, and a third with Europe,” said Bremmer. Though trade is equal with all three partners, Bremmer suggests that Peru has been more inclined to support China.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is an extraordinary, not just marketing plan, but a way for the Chinese to develop real political leverage around the world,” said Bremmer.
According to Ian Bremmer, Parag Khanna, and Michèle Flournoy, the Belt and Road Initiative will not be a trillion-dollar blunder for China.
For the Motion: The BRI is a Trillion-Dollar Blunder
Yasheng Huang and Susan Thornton supported the motion that the Belt and Road Initiative will be a trillion-dollar blunder for China.
Huang, a professor at MIT and author of “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics,” was the first debater to support the motion that the BRI will be a trillion-dollar blunder. Rather than focus on the political payout of the BRI, the MIT professor focused his argument on the premise that massive investment projects do not jumpstart economic growth.
“If that principle had been correct,” said Huang, “the countries at the top of the economic pyramid today would be countries like Egypt rather than England.”
Susan Thornton, senior fellow at Yale University and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also supports the notion that the BRI will not spur economic growth.
“The United States had a great idea too called the New Silk Road. It was supposed to connect Afghanistan with other countries in Europe and Russia,” said Thornton, “We tried to do these projects, and guess what? No one would pay for them.”
According to Thornton, other countries would not pay for U.S. infrastructure projects in Asia because there was little to no strategic return on investment.
“In general, these projects are not profitable. They’re not sustainable, and they’re going to result in more backlash over time,” argued Thornton. To achieve long-term sustainability Thornton said, the BRI must overcome some considerable obstacles including questionable Chinese lending policies and potential human rights abuses.8
Venezuela, a BRI partner, may default on its loans to China due to its recent economic collapse.7 Human rights abuses on BRI projects in the Maldives has resulted in opposition to China within the Maldives and has led to increased international scrutiny.9
Though she does not see the BRI as a trillion-dollar blunder, Flournoy also noted falling confidence from smaller BRI countries represents an obstacle for the project.9
“A number of small debt-ridden countries are now more concerned about the risks of signing up,” said Flournoy, “They witnessed Sri Lanka was forced to give China a 99-year lease to a strategic port because they could not pay their debts to Beijing.”
Cast Your Vote - Is the BRI a Trillion-Dollar Blunder?
The Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious infrastructure plan – is the biggest infrastructure investment policy in history. The project will connect China to countries in Asia and the rest of the world through ports, bridges, and railways.
Some say it will be a catalyst for growth and innovation in Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. But can China pull this off? Some argue that debt is mounting, developments are delayed, and local governments are angry, while others counter that these are merely bumps along the road. Will Xi’s "project of the century" be a major achievement for China? Or is the new Silk Road a trillion-dollar mistake?
Intelligence Squared provides a nonpartisan platform for balanced and intelligent debate. Future instances of this article will explore America’s current trade war with China, containing North Korea, and the technology war from the perspective of leading foreign policy experts.
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1 Bosworth, S. W. (2009, January 28). The United States and Asia. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/1992-02-01/united-states-and-asia.
2 Champion, M., & Leung, A. (2018, August 30). Does China Have What It Takes to Be a Superpower? Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-china-superpower/.
3 Kaplan, R. D. (2019, September 1). Asia's Coming Era of Unpredictability. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/01/asias-coming-era-of-unpredictability/.
4 Trautwein, C. (2019, June 26). All Roads Lead to China: The Belt and Road Initiative, Explained. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/all-roads-lead-to-china-the-belt-and-road-initiative-explained/.
5 Belt and Road Initiative. (2018, March 29). Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiative.
6 NewsHour, P. B. S. (2017, June 27). Walking the Silk Road, where globalization got started. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/walking-silk-road-globalization-got-started.
7 Editors, F. P. (2019, April 25). FP's Guide to China's Belt and Road. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/25/fps-guide-to-chinas-belt-and-road/.
8 Faiz, A. (2019, June 7). Is China's Belt and Road Initiative Undermining Human Rights? Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/is-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-undermining-human-rights/.
9 Balding, C. (2018, October 24). Why Democracies Are Turning Against Belt and Road. Retrieved November 1, 2019, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-24/why-democracies-are-turning-against-belt-and-road.