It is no accident that these objectives jeopardize two of Washington’s vital interests: protecting sea lines of communication and preventing the emergence of a Eurasian hegemon. Moreover, it is little consolation that China’s funding for Belt and Road projects has declined in recent years. True, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant financial stress on partner nations and has, in several cases, constrained their ability to service their BRI loans. But even if the CCP accomplishes just a fraction of its plans, a partially-completed BRI could still succeed in upending the balance of power throughout Eurasia. Indeed, the entire project echoes the nineteenth-century “Great Game” between Britain and Russia, wherein the two powers sparred for control of Central and South Asia.
But China has an additional objective: establishing unfettered maritime access for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (plan) throughout Eurasia. This ambition mirrors—and disputes—the historical role of the U.S. Navy as the global guarantor of international trade. To be sure, China is wholly inadequate to displace America in this role, but it is certainly looking to guarantee its own energy imports. Moreover, as the plan moves beyond the defense of its near-abroad to regular patrols in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean, the full scope of the BRI’s multi-domain challenge to American influence will come into focus.
This challenge is already materializing in the Pacific. While the United States works to renegotiate its compact agreements with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands, China is pouring investments into the region and funding port construction that, conveniently, could service plan visits.
But, again, the BRI’s true challenge to the United States exceeds geopolitics. In the words of Dan Tobin of the Center for Strategic & International Studies,
The challenge Beijing represents is not to Washington’s status in Asia, but to the nature of the global order’s predominant values, and the vehicle for that challenge is an effort to build both the physical and intellectual infrastructure underpinning the next phases of globalization.
Chinese authorities sought to deflect these concerns when they rebranded the project from OBOR to BRI. As Angela Stanzel of the European Council on Foreign Relations has put it, this “make[s] it sound more like an inclusive initiative rather than a strategy.” Nonetheless, the BRI is a deliberate strategy, and it presents global problems for the U.S.-led order that demand a global response.
Thus far, however, America’s response to the BRI has failed to see the forest through the trees. Perhaps most notably, the United States has now established a public-private project—the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act—to compete dollar-for-dollar with Chinese capital abroad, while also pooling resources with Japan and Australia via the Blue Dot Network to fund these projects and also rate the quality of Chinese loans. To be sure, both objectives are commendable, and the United States has met with some success in steering nations like Burma away from BRI loans. And, to the former administration’s credit, it raised serious concerns about the BRI at the outset of President Trump’s term. But the BUILD Act and Blue Dot Network represent slightly different methods of whack-a-mole—merely reacting to discrete Belt and Road projects whenever or wherever they arise. Biden’s more recent proposal for democracies to stand up a full-fledged alternative to the BRI suggests that the current administration may be on the verge of repeating these mistakes. What Washington really needs is to look past one-off infrastructure investments, recognize China’s larger gambit with the BRI, and target the initiative’s macro-structure. Doing so will require policymakers to dust off decades-old strategic tools that served America well in its most recent bout with totalitarianism, but have since fallen into disrepair.
DURING THE Cold War, the existential stakes of protracted competition with the Soviet Union—namely, the specter of nuclear Armageddon—forced the United States to practice strategy like its life depended on it. Practically, this meant rejecting a top-down approach to strategy and, effectively, learning how to compete once again like a hungry young power. Instead of adopting a defensive posture, U.S. strategists honed the craft of identifying America’s asymmetric strengths and exploiting the Soviet Union’s strategic weaknesses.
This process took decades to perfect, largely because relearning the art of strategy is difficult enough for one person, let alone an entire bureaucracy and political elite. Andrew Marshall, the venerable Cold War strategist, summarized this challenge in 1990:
The process of justifying expenditures as counters to Soviet expenditures conditioned U.S. actions on Soviet strengths, expressed as threats, not on Soviet weaknesses and constraints. We had a war strategy—a catastrophic spasm—but no plan about how to compete with the Soviet Union over the long term.
That catastrophic spasm is once again evident in America’s response to the CCP. But, thanks to Marshall and the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, which he led for many years, Washington now has a blueprint to follow: net assessment and competitive strategy.
Net assessments identify an adversary’s vulnerabilities; competitive strategies exploit them. According to Marshall, three questions guide this process: what game is the United States playing, what game is its adversary playing, and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses? During the latter half of the Cold War, this framework empowered policymakers to move past détente and actually compete with the Soviet Union by capitalizing on America’s unique advantages over the Soviets—namely, its free political system, market economy, and technological edge.
In other words, the United States practiced strategy as a bottom-up exercise, not only as a top-down endeavor. To be sure, the United States still responded to Soviet movements and stratagems throughout the Cold War, just as the Soviets responded to American decisions. But the reaction was tied to a larger competitive rubric. Caught in an existential tussle with the Soviets, policymakers in Washington had no choice but to compete on dual planes that simultaneously defended their core interests while also understanding, and sabotaging, Moscow’s game. Instead of thrashing about, the United States acted deliberately, baiting the Kremlin into decisions that favored Washington’s strengths.
Today, however, it is China that is baiting America, and the BRI is a textbook example. Washington’s instinctual response to compete with the Belt and Road dollar-for-dollar is a losing proposition that plays into China’s long game. But with an offensive framework, American policymakers could turn the tables and transform the BRI into an albatross for the Communist Party, for the massive project has multiple flanks that Washington has so far left untouched. The BRI is intrinsically connected to the systemic human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang because half of its land routes run through the territory and over the backs of oppressed minorities. Economically, meanwhile, the Belt and Road relies on corruption—and, in large part, the U.S. dollar—to grease the skids of construction. And militarily, its global scope could quickly overextend the People’s Liberation Army.
Each of these openings stems from weaknesses that are particular to the PRC and its ruling Communist Party. China has adeptly exploited America’s strategic complacency, but its brittle political system, totalitarian ideology, and fear of its own people all serve to complicate the BRI. The entire plan has multiple weaknesses at key nodes that, if pushed, could jeopardize the entire project. By harnessing the tools of net assessment and competitive strategies, U.S. policymakers could initiate targeted campaigns to exploit these vulnerabilities, atrocities, and illicit activities, and sabotage China’s “Great Game,” one step at a time.
WHETHER THE Biden administration is willing to compete at this level, though, is uncertain. While Biden has publicly eschewed any characterization of the U.S.-China relationship as another Cold War, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has nonetheless written about the importance of competitive strategies: “Sometimes, the answer is not to try to solve the problem created by others, but rather to make others contend with realities created for them.” This task, while difficult and protracted, is indispensable for the preservation of American leadership in this century.
Equally important for the Biden administration will be reckoning with shifting alliance networks. By all accounts, transatlantic unity was at a nadir mere months ago in the wake of Brussels’ rushed investment agreement with Beijing that ignored the concerns of incoming Biden staff. In the past year, through border aggression with India and an economic embargo targeting Australia, China has sought to isolate these partners. Thus far, Biden has accounted for these fluctuations and taken solid steps to forge a multilateral response to the CCP. Even so, Washington must begin to compete proactively if it hopes to preserve its global standing and derail Beijing’s strategic ambitions. Formulating a serious plan to counter China’s Belt and Road represents a very good place to start.
Michael Sobolik is Fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. You may follow him @michaelsobolik.