By Thomas Pigatto
At this June’s Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Cornwall, leaders from the world’s seven wealthiest liberal democracies discussed potential Western-led responses to global issues: namely the COVID-19 pandemic, its negative effect on global economic infrastructure and development in “low- and middle-income countries”, where projects from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have sought to increase Chinese global influence via billions of dollars of aid in the form of Chinese direct investment in Beijing-financed infrastructure development projects.
A multilateral agreement was reached June 12-13, when G7 leaders—led by U.S. President Joe Biden—unveiled the “Build Back Better World (B3W)” initiative, a “shared agenda for global action to build back better” from the ashes of COVID-19, and reinvigorate global economic prosperity and security by harnessing “the power of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights”. Though the G7 summit’s official communiqué provided only thinly-veiled references to rivalry with China, make no mistake; the B3W initiative represents a direct response to decades of growing Chinese global influence, and a multi-lateral challenge to Chinese power as Western attitudes towards China from all sides of the political spectrum continue to sour in recent years.
B3W’s primary emphasis on competition with China was confirmed by a White House released “fact sheet” following the projects announcement at the G7 summit. The document asserts that with B3W, the U.S. is “rallying the worlds democracies” to address “strategic competition with China” by galvanizing private-sector investment towards the “tremendous infrastructure needs of low- and middle-income countries”, with a characteristically Western emphasis on climate policy, health security, digital intellectual property, and human rights. In harnessing American soft power to address the $40+ trillion worth of infrastructure required by the worlds developing nations, the Biden administration’s B3W plan represents a new Western alternative to China’s BRI projects for developing nations.
Since the Belt and Road Initiative’s announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, China has vigorously developed its land-based and maritime trade routes with the rest of the world, investing over an estimated $1 to $8 trillion in railways, shipping ports, energy pipelines, highways, and other infrastructure in over 100 countries around the world. According to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the goal of the BRI is to promote global connectivity, establish and assert China’s global influence through partnerships with countries along the Belt and Road, and to promote “independent, balanced, and sustainable development” in participating countries. Among top recipients of Chinese BRI funding include Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia, Iran, Brazil, and Venezuela. While the CCP insists that the BRI is motivated by the values of shared development and prosperity, many Western governments and media outlets have criticized BRI for engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy” and economic neo-imperialism, and for being a mechanism for China to promote oppressive regimes and export it’s authoritarian style of governance around the world.
Regardless of BRI’s true intent, Biden’s new strategy represents a significant augmentation of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “trade war” approach to the Sino-U.S. economic rivalry, and a significant step in the Biden administration’s desire to restore American foreign policy’s emphasis on multilateralism and international leadership. While the Biden administration’s approach retains many aspects of Trump-era foreign policy’s adversarial and competitive attitude towards China’s growing global influence, Biden, unlike his predecessor, is clearly attempting to channel this competition through modern American foreign policy’s traditional reliance on consensus-making through international forums like the G7, and reframe the Sino-U.S. competition in a manner that reframes American concerns with China’s rise as shared global concerns.
Though CCP higher-ups like Xi Jinping have provided little comment on the announcement of B3W, a spokesman from China’s London embassy criticized the G7’s announcement, asserting that “the days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone”, and dismissing B3W as a futile American attempt to impose an antiquated unipolar model of global governance. In an article from The Global Times—an online Chinese news publication under the influence of the CCP dubbed “China’s Fox News” by Javier Hernández of the New York Times—the B3W initiative was lambasted for being a part of America’s “China-bashing campaign”, insisting that China’s BRI projects are successful, long-term, and mutually beneficial, while the G7’s “newly hatched” B3W initiative represents a cynical, short-term, and unrealistic “empty promise” from the West to the developing world. According to Zhao Gancheng, a research fellow at the Chinese-funded Shanghai Institute for International Studies, “the political meaning of the B3W initiative far outweighs the actual results it may attain”.
Chinese criticisms of the B3W initiative, while undeniably influenced by the biases of Chinese nationalism, do highlight several key hurdles that B3W will face if it is to achieve its extremely ambitious goal of closing a perceive $40 trillion “infrastructure gap” in the developing world. As many Chinese media outlets have pointed out, neither the G7 or U.S. government have released any concrete details on the roll-out of B3W, such as timetables or sources of financial backing. Furthermore, with no real method of ensuring that B3W loans are repaid by participating countries, available information about B3W suggests that the plan is something more of a rough sketch than a final blueprint in its current state. To again paraphrase China’s Global Times, if Biden’s domestic infrastructure package has faced such “high hurdles” within America, how can America possibly hope to achieve a $40 trillion international development project like the proposed B3W?
The B3W initiative still in its relative infancy, and it is still too early to tell if the project will be able to successfully compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With the project receiving its fair share of criticism domestically and abroad, the G7 faces an uphill battle in selling B3W to the rest of the world. While the announcement of this project—in addition to America’s recommitment to organizations like the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization—seem to confirm America’s recommitment to multi-literalism and global leadership, only time will tell if the world will accept B3W as an alternative to China, and if America is, as President Biden claims, truly “back”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.