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America must act now to fulfill vision for global infrastructure

America must act now to fulfill vision for global infrastructure
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This week, representatives from more than 150 states and international organizations are meeting in Beijing to discuss the next phase of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the most significant and ambitious strategic plan of this century so far. The global gathering demonstrates that despite its failures, such as driving up developing country debt and stoking corruption, the Belt and Road Initiative remains a powerful avenue for Chinese influence because it speaks to the aspirations of developing countries. As we argue in a new bipartisan report, the United States can and must offer its own more attractive vision for global infrastructure.

Over the next 15 years, it is projected that more global infrastructure will be built than currently exists. New roads, power plants, and fiber optic cables will carry people, energy, data, and ideas faster and further than ever before. No large scale 5G networks have been rolled out yet, but according to one industry estimate, more than 1.5 billion people will subscribe to 5G networks by 2024. These new linkages also have the potential to reorder relations within and between countries. That is why regional powers are racing to advance their own visions for infrastructure.

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In this global connectivity contest, the Belt and Road Initiative stands out for its ambition, continental sweep, and potential strategic threat to American interests. Since World War II, a bipartisan mainstay of United States foreign policy has been preventing the emergence of a leading hegemon on the Eurasian supercontinent, where most of the economic capacity and population of the world resides. The Belt and Road Initiative is the Chinese platform for accumulating power across this space and beyond, through economic, diplomatic, and military vectors.

Unfortunately, however, enmeshed with these risks is the genuine need in developing countries across the world for infrastructure. Developing Asia alone needs $26 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2030 to maintain its growth while keeping pace with demographic and environmental changes. Without alternatives for meeting these pressing needs, many countries will choose debt heavy Chinese projects over no projects at all.

The United States must act to protect and advance its interests in a highly strategic and focused manner given our own resource constraints and the absolute need for American infrastructure renewal at home. Some recent efforts, including the “Free and Open Indo Pacific” strategy of the Trump administration and passage of the Build Act in Congress, are laudable but far from sufficient given the stakes. To make strategic choices, American policymakers should start by adopting a three part framework for setting our national priorities and marshalling American power and resources.

First, compile an inventory of global infrastructure efforts and conduct an internal assessment to identify those projects and geographies that are most vital to American economic or security interests. There are certain types of infrastructure, especially 5G wireless networks and other types of digital infrastructure, and certain geographic areas, particularly in the Americas, Europe, and parts of Asia and Africa, that the United States cannot allow China to dominate, much less monopolize to its advantage.

Second, use that assessment to deploy and incentivize American public and private sector resources into those key infrastructure types and priority geographic areas, in close coordination with American partners and allies. This cooperation is strongly in our national interests both for the immediate commercial gains it will provide and for the sustainable economic and security benefits that will come from the kind of global connectivity that modern and high quality infrastructure will produce.

Finally, monitor and encourage the buildout of infrastructure that poses no significant risk to American economic or security interests. In these less critical areas, Chinese projects should be welcomed if they meet high standards of transparency, sustainability, resiliency, fiscal responsibility, and social responsibility. While still early, China has already demonstrated some interest in meeting such global standards in its creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The major Chinese lending banks should likewise replicate effective international standards and practices from several established international financing and development institutions.

Successful action will require bipartisan attention and cooperation with partners and allies as the global infrastructure buildout unfolds. But time is short, and the United States must act now to reinforce its interests in countries that are undergoing massive change and whose choices will shape our future. Our absence from the field makes the decision for them, resulting in a world in which all roads, physical and digital, lead to Beijing.

Charlene Barshefsky is a senior international partner at Wilmer Hale and a former United States trade representative. Stephen Hadley is a principal at Rice Hadley Gates and a former United States national security adviser. Together they chair the Global Infrastructure Task Force of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, from which this column is adapted.