Written by Jinny Kim
It may be too soon to say that in the next few decades, China will be the world’s preeminent leader on the geopolitical stage. Or is it? China’s economy is still #2, behind the US, and in recent years, growth has not been able to match the breakneck speed at which it once grew. Despite the economic slowdown, China has begun to translate its current economic standing to strengthen its soft and hard power.
One of the most visible and publicized efforts made in this regard is its “Belt and Road Initiative,” or BRI. Specifically, the BRI involves building infrastructure such as railways,highways, energy pipelines, and expanding maritime trade by investing in port development along the Indian Ocean. Many of the publicized investment projects have taken place in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. However, in reality, roughly two-thirds of the world’s countries have agreed to take on projects under the BRI initiative—many of them traditional US allies. In March 2019 when Xi Jinping visited Rome, Italy was the first G7 nation to sign on to a BRI project. In China, government officials sometimes refer to it as “the New Silk Road,” a term meant to conjure images of China as a global economic, political, and innovation hub.
In the US, suspicion about China’s motivations have colored coverage surrounding the project, and the BRI is frequently derided as an example of “neocolonialism.” The Council on Foreign Relations, an NY-based think tank, said in its feature about the BRI: “The US shares the concern of some in Asia that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development, military expansion, and Beijing-controlled institutions. A NYTimes feature on the BRI reads, “China Retools Vast Global Building Push Criticized as Bloated and Predatory.” “Is China a Colonial Power?” is the title of another article. Adding to this, there is more unflattering news about China in regards to the ongoing trade war. A poll conducted in 2019 found that 60% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of China.
Yet the uncomfortable truth is that while the US accuses China of neocolonialism, it too has been accused of neocolonialism, or at the very least, neocolonialist tendencies. “American exceptionalism” has been the Pavlovian defense for the US’s continuous presence in the Middle East and military bases all over the world, including Germany, South Korea, and Japan. How hypocritical is it of the US to fault China for neocolonialism, when other nations view it as having committed similar acts?
Another argument the US tends to make when debating the potential threat of Chinese expansion is China’s human rights record. When speaking about human rights around the world, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China “is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.” Human rights have been a frequent source of subtle, inadvertent leverage for the US when it comes to US-China relations. But in order for the US government to argue it does not agree with the Chinese government and its initiatives on the basis of human rights, it needs to make its stance more clear in its foreign policy and messages to China. Engaging in relationships with other authoritarian governments, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, undermines the legitimacy of its threats to punish China for its human rights issues.
The many complexities of the US-China relationship have shaped the US’s opinions and understanding of the BRI. For the US to better understand the realities of the BRI and China’s growing global presence, it has to acknowledge what may be undermining its objectivity and legitimacy, and then, move forward with a response.