In recent years, there has been an increasing geopolitical competition between China and the United States centered around infrastructure initiatives known as “roads and corridors.” China has been promoting its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure plan to build roads, railways, ports and pipelines connecting China to Central Asia, Europe, Africa and beyond. The United States sees this as an attempt by China to expand its influence and is responding with its own infrastructure programs to counter China’s ambitions.
This article will provide an in-depth analysis of the growing competition between China and America over roads, railways, and trade corridors. It will examine the strategic motivations behind the BRI and American responses such as the Build Back Better World Partnership (B3W) and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The geopolitical implications of infrastructure competition in different regions such as Southeast Asia, Eurasia, the Indian Ocean, and Latin America will be analyzed. The article will also look at whether cooperation is possible between the Chinese and American initiatives.
The Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. It comprises the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt connecting China to Central Asia, Eastern Europe and beyond, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road linking China to Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe via maritime routes. The BRI spans over 60 countries across multiple continents, involving 70% of the world’s population.
The BRI has several key aims:
Improving infrastructure connectivity between China and other Eurasian countries to facilitate trade, investment and people-to-people ties. This includes building roads, railways, ports, pipelines, electricity networks and telecommunications infrastructure.
Increasing Chinese economic and political influence in Eurasia and around the Indian Ocean. The BRI provides a platform for China to take a leadership role in global development and shape new global governance mechanisms.
Promoting industrial capacity cooperation by developing overseas economic and trade cooperation zones and enhancing Chinese construction capabilities. This allows China to export its excess capacity in industries like steel, cement and engineering services.
Facilitating greater use of Chinese currency (Renminbi) in global finance and trade settlement, by making it an exchange currency for Belt and Road projects.
Securing energy resources and export routes to meet China’s growing energy demands, reduce dependence on maritime shipping routes, and diversify supply sources from the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia.
The scope of the BRI is expansive and ever-growing. The initiative incorporates nearly 900 individual projects with a combined value of around $1 trillion. High-profile BRI projects include:
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – a collection of projects connecting China to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, including roads, railways and pipelines, worth $62 billion.
Piraeus Port in Greece – Chinese shipping giant COSCO acquired a majority stake in the port in 2016, turning it into a BRI gateway to Europe.
Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway in Indonesia – a $6 billion high-speed rail line connecting the Indonesian capital to Bandung, built and financed by China.
Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka leased the strategically located port to a Chinese state-owned company for 99 years after struggling to pay back Chinese loans.
Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port in Myanmar – a $7.5 billion port and Special Economic Zone being developed by China on the Bay of Bengal.
The BRI is not one cohesive program but rather a loosely affiliated set of projects centered around infrastructure connectivity. It does not have a formal institutional structure but is managed through inter-governmental partnerships and funded by Chinese policy banks, the AIIB, New Development Bank, Silk Road Fund and Chinese commercial banks. Contracts are awarded predominantly to Chinese state-owned enterprises.
The United States sees the BRI as a geostrategic play by China to wield political influence and export Chinese standards through predatory economics. American officials have warned about the risks of debt traps, lack of transparency, misuse of local labor and supply chains, and adverse environmental impacts.
In response, the US has launched its own initiatives to provide infrastructure financing and counter growing Chinese influence, while criticizing the BRI model:
Build Back Better World Partnership (B3W):
- Launched in 2021 at the G7 summit, the B3W aims to catalyze $40 trillion in infrastructure investment in developing countries by 2035.
- It promotes values like transparency, climate-friendliness, anti-corruption, and labor rights – drawing a contrast to Chinese approaches.
- No new funding has been pledged yet, but it aims to coordinate existing development finance tools under a common framework.
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF):
- Initiated in 2022, the IPEF is an economic partnership between 13 Indo-Pacific countries, excluding China.
- It seeks to integrate regional economies through improved supply chains, infrastructure, decarbonization, and tax and anti-corruption measures.
- The framework specifically targets Southeast Asian nations to provide an alternative to BRI partnerships.
Blue Dot Network:
- Joint initiative between the US, Japan and Australia launched in 2019 to certify “quality infrastructure projects”.
- The network sets standards around transparency, sustainability, and financial viability – and certifies projects that meet these standards as a “blue dot” of endorsement.
- This aims to counteract concerns over debt traps and low-quality construction under the BRI model.
Partnerships with Japan, Australia, India:
- Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership with Japan and Australia in 2022 to provide $30 billion in infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific over the next five years.
- Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group formed with Japan, Australia and India to coordinate infrastructure delivery and regional connectivity.
- Bilateral initiatives like the US-India Build infrastructure in the developing world.
In summary, the American response has focused on providing regional infrastructure alternatives through coordinated partnerships that promote Western norms and standards. However, the initiatives are still in their infancy compared to the scale and scope of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Geopolitical Implications in Key Regions
Southeast Asia is a key priority zone for both Chinese and American infrastructure plans given its strategic location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China has devoted major BRI resources here, including high-speed rail in Laos, hydropower dams in Cambodia, and ports across the region. The BRI bolsters China’s influence in Southeast Asia where it already has strong economic leverage.
However, Southeast Asian nations also harbor security concerns about over-reliance on China. The US is seeking to counter through the IPEF and increased naval presence. But countries like Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia continue to deepen BRI partnerships. The infrastructure competition in Southeast Asia is intense and shapes regional alignments.
Central Asia and Eastern Europe are critical zones in the BRI’s Silk Road Economic Belt. China has funded oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan, major highway and railway links through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and inland ports in the region to boost Eurasian trade. However, Russian influence remains strong in its traditional sphere of influence.
The US has compared BRI projects unfavorably to the Marshall Plan model. But Eurasian states welcome the economic benefits from cooperating with China on infrastructure. As China’s power grows, Central Asia balancing acts between Chinese, Russian and Western interests. Infrastructure ties impact this delicate dynamic.
The Indian Ocean sea lanes are vital global maritime trade routes linking East Asia and the Middle East. China is seeking more influence in the region through BRI ports in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. This enables China to secure energy supplies and helm Indian Ocean trade.
India and the US worry about encirclement by China’s “String of Pearls” strategy. In response, they are ramping up naval activity and counter-partnerships through mechanisms like the Quad. Infrastructural power projection in the Indian Ocean region is becoming a source of US-China rivalry.
China has expanded the BRI to Latin America and the Caribbean where it is financing major infrastructure projects from a railway in Bolivia to a Jamaica port. It has overtaken the US as the top trade partner for major South American economies. China’s inroads worry the US, which sees the region as its traditional sphere of influence.
However, Latin American nations have broadly welcomed China’s offers of investment in return for commodities supply. The US has lacked capacity to match China’s infrastructure financing in the Western hemisphere. The infrastructure competition in Latin America is more reflective of shifting geopolitical tides.
As these examples illustrate, roads and corridors have become a battlefield for influence between China and the US globally. Infrastructure linkages are strengthening China’s connectivity and partnerships, while the US tries to counter through regional alternatives. This competition is impacting regional economic integration and geopolitical alignments.
Possibility of Cooperation?
While their infrastructure initiatives are often portrayed as rivals, cooperation between China and the US is possible in certain areas.
There have been instances of China collaborating with American or European firms in third countries. For example, a consortium including China Railway Group and General Electric bid together to upgrade the Kenyan rail network. China’s Silk Road Fund has also co-financed projects alongside World Bank and Asian Development Bank in Central Asia.
Port, rail and road infrastructure along the US-funded corridor connecting Central Asia to Pakistani ports Gwadar and Karachi could potentially be integrated with nearby China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects. Shared infrastructure drives regional connectivity.
The US Blue Dot Network concept could even potentially align with China’s Green Silk Road, which applies environmental sustainability safeguards to BRI projects. Synergies in adopting green tech and climate-resilient infrastructure could emerge.
More broadly, as massive infrastructure gaps persist in developing countries, there may be space for parallel Chinese and American projects to co-exist. At times, initiatives can be complementary in meeting shared development goals. While strategic competition dominates, selective cooperation remains feasible.
Infrastructure networks embody power and influence. China’s Belt and Road Initiative marks its agenda setting role in building Eurasian connectivity. But America is wary about ceding ground and responds with alternative initiatives. This sets up a geopolitical competition over roads and corridors playing out across regions.
Yet infrastructure need not be a zero-sum game. With trillions required to bridge the developing world’s infrastructure financing gap, parallel projects are viable. If China and America can promote transparency, sustainability and high standards, infrastructure can spur mutual growth rather than simply strategic dominance. The coming decades will determine whether rival roads converge or collide.
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