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The administration must respond to the Belt and Road Initiative of China

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Senior officials in the administration of President Biden traveled to Alaska last week and met with Chinese officials who represented an emboldened Beijing with rising economic and political clout and new military strength. Nothing better embodies such increasing confidence and influence than the Belt and Road Initiative, the signature foreign policy endeavor from Xi Jinping and the largest ever global infrastructure venture.

The United States must approach strategic competition with China from a position of strength, and it can only do so with a comprehensive response to the Belt and Road Initiative. Such a response needs to focus on working with partners to provide an attractive and effective alternative, investing in critical American strengths, and advancing our national security interests in these member countries of the Belt and Road Initiative.

A closer examination of the Belt and Road Initiative reveals that China has leveraged infrastructure projects by efforts to make countries dependent on Beijing for trade, finance, and technology. It saddles the countries with high debts and unsustainable megaprojects, leaving them far less able to demand decent labor and environmental standards, and more vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. China has even focused on member countries in priority vaccine access to draw them further into its orbit.

The Belt and Road Initiative filled a void left by the United States and may tilt the playing field away from American companies. Though talking of a level playing field, Beijing has leveraged subsidies and loans that handed Chinese companies almost 90 percent of all contracts. The Belt and Road Initiative makes fighting climate change harder. China has financed more than 240 power plants fueled by coal for more than two dozen countries, creating a lock on a carbon intensive future. China has secured access to overseas ports, while potentially jeopardizing United States use of those critical logistic facilities during times of crisis and conflict.

While the United States must push back against the wide array of Chinese actions which threaten American interests, unless it crafts a coherent and strategic response to the Belt and Road Initiative, it risks the world where Beijing will serve more and more as the hub of global trade and business, with China unafraid to exert its own economic influence over the political decisions of all its partners in the Belt and Road Initiative.

As our new Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report lays out, the United States has a major interest in adopting a strategy that pressures China to alter its practices and offers an effective alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative that promotes sustainable infrastructure, holds high environmental and anticorruption standards, ensures that our American companies can operate on a level playing field, and assists countries in preserving their strategic autonomy and political stances.

The priority is to build on our historic strengths by increasing funding for national research and development. Chinese research and development spending will, according to its plans, rise by 7 percent annually. We must update immigration and visa policies to attract and retain the best talent in the world in critical technology. We must support our companies with development finance while encouraging plus facilitating greater private and public participation in the standards processes which have allowed Beijing to write the rules in favor of its technology agenda.

To offset the negative economic impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative, we must lead a global effort to promote adherence to high standards in lending, transparency, and the environment. We have to offer countries considering negotiations with Beijing robust technical support, so they can discern the true costs of offers on the table as well as other options. We cannot respond sufficiently to the Belt and Road Initiative alone. The United States has no real alternative to offer in high speed rail or 5G. We need to work with our allies and create partnerships between the public and private sectors to find options that are available now.

We must work with similarly minded countries to pressure China to abide by its pledge for a green agenda and to adhere to international standards. We should also implement trade deals where our presence translates into better competitive opportunities for American companies and trade rules with high standards. We must join with our fellow World Bank members to revitalize the institution so the United States can take the lead on offering sustainable infrastructure all around the developing world.

We need a smart and tailored response to the Belt and Road Initiative that accounts for the perils and draws on our strengths of innovative business, robust capital markets, renowned research institutions, and vital alliances to provide the alternative where we can push back where we must. As the administration engages with China, it must do so from a place of power. A response to the Belt and Road Initiative marks the first step.

Jacob Lew served as a former United States Treasury secretary who is now a managing partner with Lindsay Goldberg and also visiting professor with the School of International and Public Affairs for Columbia University. Gary Roughead served as a former chief of operations of the United States Navy and is now a military fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. They were chairs of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force for China.

Tags Business China Economics Finance International Politics President Security

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