10 Sept 2019
The Belt and Road Initiative: Views from Washington, Moscow, and Beijing
By Feng Yujun, Vice Dean, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University and Director, Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies
Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and Chair, Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center
Paul Haenle, Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair, Carnegie–Tsinghua Center, Tsinghua University
Ma Bin, Assistant Research Fellow, Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies & Research Center for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Fudan University
Dmitri Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center
The BRI presents unique challenges and opportunities for China, Russia, and the United States, resulting in disagreements over the initiative’s objectives and increasing the potential for misunderstandings. For China, the BRI represents Xi Jinping’s ambition to solidify China as a global power, increase its global influence, and direct global economic flows toward Beijing. The existing international system cannot adequately respond to the growing development needs of many in the international community. China promotes the BRI as a way to improve global governance systems and accelerate international development. It is seen in China as a benevolent project that seeks to foster win-win cooperation, improve China’s ties with other countries, and provide more opportunities for international partnerships.
From Russia’s perspective, the BRI is primarily an economic opportunity with long-term implications for Russia’s strategic interests. Moscow views the BRI as a symbol of China’s economic and financial might and its desire to assert its status as a global power through greater foreign engagement. Russia is focused on capitalizing on the BRI’s economic potential while limiting China’s ability to interfere with its own national security and sovereignty. Given Putin and Xi’s strong personal relationship, Moscow is confident it can balance these intertwined goals.
In the United States, the BRI faces significant criticism for a lack of transparency and economic sustainability. An ongoing reassessment in Washington over engagement with China has negatively affected policymakers’ views of the BRI. Washington does not disagree with the need for major infrastructure development but views the initiative in the context of China’s status as a rising power and competitor. It is still grappling with how to participate in opportunities presented by the initiative while upholding its own standards and limiting the decline of U.S. influence and interests.
Whether the BRI is motivated by geopolitical considerations remains a central area of debate. In China, there is clear messaging that the initiative’s stated goals to address the need for global infrastructure development and contribute to developing countries’ economic growth do not contradict the government’s stance that the initiative has no greater geopolitical motives.
Russian and U.S. interpretations of the project acknowledge that economic development is a central tenet of the BRI, but they also worry to varying degrees about the initiative’s geostrategic implications. Moscow has largely muted its geopolitical concerns given its close political alignment with Beijing and the potential benefits of the BRI. However, it still worries about the consequences of a strong China dominating Eurasia and has tried to diversify its economic relations in Asia.
U.S. policymakers emphasize the unavoidable linkages between the economic goals and geopolitical ramifications of the BRI. Washington clearly sees the initiative as having underlying strategic motivations and the potential to alter the geopolitical landscape and global governance standards. These criticisms are exacerbated by BRI projects that have resulted in China taking possession of strategic infrastructure in foreign countries.
Both Russia and the United States would be happy to see a more inclusive and transparent BRI that includes greater participation of non-Chinese companies. Russia is taking advantage of available opportunities for investment and heavily seeking partnership with China on the BRI. U.S. companies seek opportunities to participate in BRI projects but have highlighted a number of obstacles, including a lack of available information and equitable bidding processes that hinder fair competition.
These concerns contrast with Beijing’s claim that the BRI is inclusive and open. China encourages foreign companies to participate while pushing back on the narrative that they are at a disadvantage. Instead, China attributes the lack of foreign participation to an inability to compete with domestic companies. China will have to effectively address these concerns in order to generate greater foreign participation and alleviate U.S. and Russian concerns over the BRI’s geopolitical impact.
Both China and the United States can learn from the successes of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to help foster a more inclusive and transparent BRI. For Beijing, this includes appointing accessible and transparent leadership to proactively engage and respond to international concerns about the BRI, acknowledging both its failures and successes. Washington should learn that flat out condemnation of the initiative only serves to limit China’s receptiveness to legitimate U.S. concerns.
There remain a number of opportunities and challenges for the BRI going forward. Russia is aware of its growing economic asymmetry with China but is determined to remain an equal partner. Moscow will continue to support the BRI, focusing on integrating BRI projects with its own foreign policy and development priorities. Key to this will be preserving its position as the preeminent military power in Central Asia. Moscow will also seek to strengthen ties with other powerful regional actors in order to balance against China’s growing influence.
The United States will continue to advocate for greater transparency and economic sustainability in BRI projects. It will look to Beijing to actively respond to its criticisms, many of which are shared by the international community. Washington’s perception of the BRI is likely to be heavily influenced by the increasingly competitive nature of the relationship. However, if U.S. criticisms of the initiative are not backed up with legitimate policy alternatives, developing countries are likely to continue to turn to China for their development needs. The priority for Washington is to devise policies that uphold U.S. interests and values while encouraging China to adopt them itself. Otherwise, Washington risks creating a zero-sum environment where countries must choose between the United States and China, an outcome that would only further exacerbate bilateral tensions.
China has made clear that the BRI is here to stay. Already, the initiative has helped bring needed infrastructure and investment to many developing countries. If successful, the BRI can help China establish itself as the world’s preeminent economic power. However, as the initiative has grown, so has scrutiny of China’s greater international engagement. Furthermore, the initiative’s success is not guaranteed. Chinese policymakers recognize there are a number of difficulties and challenges facing the BRI going forward, including perceptions that it has greater strategic ambitions than indicated, concerns over economic sustainability and transparency of projects, and confusion over how it complements or subverts the current international order. However, since the BRI’s official launch, Beijing has accumulated a pool of completed and ongoing projects, both successful and failed, from which to learn valuable lessons and adapt its practices where needed. Facing a slowing domestic economy, Beijing will have to mitigate its risky investments and incorporate lessons from past mistakes. Abroad, it needs to demonstrate it is actively improving the BRI in line with international feedback. This will be key to ensure the BRI accelerates global economic growth instead of hindering it.
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