Despite initiatives by the previous and current administrations, there are fresh concerns the United States is falling short to counter China’s rising geopolitical influence.
Beijing’s evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for the past eight years, has financed projects globally, including roads, railways, power plants and telecommunications infrastructure.
"U.S. inaction, as much as Chinese assertiveness, is responsible for the economic and strategic predicament in which the United States finds itself. U.S. withdrawal helped create the vacuum that China filled with BRI,” according to a report of an independent task force released Tuesday by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Although the United States long ago identified an interest in promoting infrastructure, trade and connectivity throughout Asia and repeatedly invoked the imagery of the Silk Road, it has not met the inherent needs of the region. Its own lending to and investment in many BRI countries was limited and is now declining,” according to the council’s assessment.
China’s multitrillion-dollar initiative is “unbound geographically so it is now anywhere and everywhere” and has moved beyond traditional infrastructure, David Sacks, a research analyst at CFR and one of the report’s co-authors, told VOA.
BRI is “boosting China’s ability to project its power across the region and the world,” said Jack Lew, who previously was a U.S. Treasury secretary and White House chief of staff. “U.S. policymakers need to offer alternatives to BRI where it can and to educate other countries about what it entails and push back when necessary.”
China is now perceived to be more powerful than the United States in parts of Africa and Asia because of BRI, said former U.S. Trade Representative General Counsel Jennifer Hillman, one of the other authors of the CFR report.
BRI encompasses the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (with digital, health and “green” subsets), the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Polar Silk Road.
“We have to get back in the game,” with the United States joining or rejoining trade agreements it left during the Donald Trump presidency, said Hillman, who was among those speaking Tuesday at an online forum about the CFR report.
"China has made investing in infrastructure a high priority. The United States has not,” Lew said during the event.
Current U.S. officials say the administration of President Joe Biden is going to change that.
“Competition with China is a factor that is encouraging the United States to up its diplomatic game across the board,” a senior administration official told VOA.
During the Trump administration, relatively modest initiatives were taken to counter BRI, including the International Development Finance Corporation, the Blue Dot network for infrastructure project certification and a U.S.-Taiwan infrastructure initiative, as well as the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
“There was a lot of rebranding, but there weren't additional resources given to these initiatives,” Sacks said.
The Biden administration this week launched the Small and Less Populous Island Economies (SALPIE) Initiative, announcing it will strengthen U.S. economic collaboration with island countries and territories in the Caribbean, North Atlantic and Pacific regions.
“It's important to strengthen our alliances, particularly among smaller countries that might otherwise come under a certain amount of pressure from China,” a senior administration official told VOA on Tuesday.
The White House official announcement of SALPIE notes the importance of “countering predatory investment practices by malign actors.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese co-hosted Monday a virtual event with envoys from island countries and territories, inviting them to partner with Washington under the SALPIE Initiative, which brings 29 U.S. departments and agencies together to coordinate ongoing and future engagements.
The administration, later this week, is convening a meeting involving those 29 entities “to actually make this kind of meaningful and real and operational,” a senior official explained.
Another senior U.S. official explained SALPIE “is a different approach than Blue Dot and some of these other initiatives,” promising that “it really does leverage the convening power that we have from here to ensure that we are able to implement in a way that's effectively addressing the priorities we’ve outlined.”
The status of the Trump-era Blue Dot initiative, which included Australia and Japan as the only announced partners with the United States, remains unclear. It retains a presence on the State Department website, but there is little other evidence of its continuing existence.
“Blue Dot was not resourced and it remains to be seen whether this new initiative [SALPIE] is resourced,” Sacks said. “What we need is not only kind of a declaratory policy and to go out publicly and say, ‘We want to compete, we want to be the partner of choice,’ but we need actual funding and resources behind it.”
At the regional level in Asia, some additional counterweights to BRI are likely to be applied by the yet informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan and the United States.
“Why not use the Quad as a mechanism to promote infrastructure in Asia and establish an infrastructure fund that has billions of dollars behind it to go do this?” Sacks asked. “You know these are the right partners” with the potential to add South Korea and Taiwan.
While the Biden administration’s plans to counter BRI may be ambitious and sprawling, there is concern it will not receive sufficient attention due to a lack of centralization and influential leadership. Thus, the idea for an “infrastructure czar” to orchestrate the U.S. response to China’s global investment ambitions.
“It’s hard for the State Department or the Department of Commerce to have that convening power,” Sacks said. “Sometimes it's not helpful to have czars on so many issues, but I do think — given the scale of the challenge and the need for a coordinated interagency response — it might make sense to have in the National Security Council or the National Economic Council an infrastructure czar who reports to the president.”
Biden has already appointed so-called czars for climate policy, the border with Mexico and the COVID-19 economic rescue plan. There is also similar discussion about selecting officials to oversee cyberpolicy and for busting monopolies.