Hossein Asgarian

Washington Strategy towards Chinese OBOR

Date of publication : January 22, 2018 09:35 am
Washington Strategy towards Chinese OBOR

At the present time, China is in transition form an important actor in the global economy to a global leader. During the past five decades, this country has turned from a weak country to a powerful state in the international system, and its role has changed from a passive approach in the international system to an active role marked by an effort to reform that system. In this process, China has also shaped various developments in the Asia-Pacific region. In the meantime, China’s active presence in various initiatives, plans, and institutions prove the country’s serious determination to create an alternative world order, at least, in the field of international economy. Some of those initiatives and global institutions include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS bank and China’s initiative for promoting economic convergence in the Asia-Pacific free trade zone, its Asia-Pacific common market, and the New Silk Road initiative. 
Out of various initiatives set forth by China’s foreign policy apparatus, perhaps the Silk Road economic belt initiative, known as the “One Belt and One Road” initiative is perhaps the most important initiative, which proves China’s determination to gradually move toward and externalized policy in order to play the role of a regional power in a more active way. This initiative, when complete, will cover about 64 percent of the world’s population and 39 percent of land territories, accounting for 37 percent of the world’s total gross product. During recent years, Chinese officials have been trying to promote this initiative through any means possible. They introduced this initiative in an international gathering on the One Belt and One Road initiative in May 2017. The meeting was presided over by China’s President Xi Jinping and was attended by representatives from about one hundred countries, including 29 heads of state. China has also signed agreements for cooperation in this initiative with at least 68 countries and international organizations and has defined hundreds of projects in relation to it. Most importantly, China has mobilized all its foreign policy, trade and financial potentialities in order to support this initiative.
At any rate, China’s plan is so big that Washington cannot easily ignore it, especially because this plan mostly focuses on such restive regions as the Middle East, the South China Sea, India and Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and so forth, where the United States has vital interests. The approach that the United States will take to the One Belt and One Road initiative will undoubtedly affect Beijing’s relations with Washington. Despite the fact that this initiative can be a game changer, because it covers areas where the United States has vital interests, both administrations of Barack Obama and the current US President Donald Trump failed to pay due attention to this initiative. As a result, even US Congress never dedicated any sessions to discussing this initiative from the outset of its introduction.
Of course, the United States has tried in some cases to analyze this initiative through soft power tactics, but it has not been successful in this regard. For example, Washington once tried to lobby against the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in order to cause this initiative to wither. However, this measure had proven to be erroneous as many countries, including England, Germany, and the Zionist regime have already joined the bank. Even Canada is now a member of this bank as the first North American country to join it.
The United States’ reaction to the One Belt and One Road initiative
Before discussing the United States’ reaction to the One Belt and One Road initiative, the impact of Washington’s military, economic, environmental and diplomatic policies on China’s attitude, and share of those policies in designing this initiative must be taken into account. The Obama administration’s strategy of rebalance from Europe and the Middle East to East Asia, which is known as rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, has caused China to feel being surrounded. The use of international financial institutions by the United States and its influence in them has been another reason behind Beijing’s dissatisfaction with Washington. This issue has been one of those factors that have brought about a change in China’s foreign policy and the One Belt and One Road initiative.
With regard to the United States’ attitude to the One Belt and One Road initiative, one can say that there is no consensus among academic analysts and foreign policy experts of the United States about the goals and impacts of this initiative on relations between the United States and China or China’s role in the world, because many of them consider it as both a threat and an opportunity.
Areas of threat: Trump’s election has led to a change in the thinking about the United States’ role in the world, especially the share of the United States in development of the global economy. The proposed budget for the United States in 2018 shows that Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy has drastically reduced the budget allocated to economic development in many countries. This is important when one takes into account that most of those countries are located along the path of the One Belt and One Road initiative. On the other hand, reduced financial aid to the World Bank and other financial institutions has caused many countries to turn to China for aid. However, relations between the United States and China under the Trump’s administration have been much better than what expected. This issue has been due to Washington’s need to Beijing’s support in some crises, including the crisis regarding North Korea.
However, the One Belt and One Road initiative can turn into a bone of contention between the two sides. Some experts are concerned that this initiative will increase economic and political differences between the two sides and finally affect relations between the United States and China. This initiative is based on some sort of government-guided economic management, which is not acceptable to most Americans. Another major concern for the United States is that China is planning to create a new economic framework or new international institutions, which will work in parallel to or even supplant those financial and economic regimes that are led by the US, including the Bretton Woods Institutions or the financial system that is based on the US dollar. Proponents of this viewpoint maintain that the One Belt and One Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can be considered as challenges posed to the existing international order and a beginning for a China-based order. This initiative can also cause geopolitical concerns on the side of the United States. Therefore, this initiative is sometimes seen as an effort to marginalize the United States in economic terms, to create a sphere of influence for China in Eurasia, or as an excuse for the overseas military buildup by Beijing.
Areas of opportunity: For the United States and China to maintain their relations, both countries must not only identify those interests that can be potential bones of contention, but also find areas for cooperation. At the present time, the risk of further problem in relations exists, especially taking into account that the issue of climate change, which provided a ground for cooperation between the two countries under the administration of former US president, Barack Obama, is no longer a priority for the administration of President Trump. In the meantime, the One Belt and One Road initiative, or in general terms, development of infrastructure can fill the void of climate change and give the two countries a common ground for cooperation.
This cooperation can also reduce tensions that exist between the two sides in the field of trade. On the other hand, this initiative can provide both countries with an opportunity to shift their focus from merely trade agreements to other economic fields, the most important of which are construction of infrastructural facilities like pipelines, construction of seaports, energy transfer terminals, high-speed trains, and so on. In addition, the United States can look upon such investment in infrastructure as a way to promote peace through development of countries like Afghanistan. The outcomes of this initiative for the global economy provide another opportunity of which the United States can take advantage.
Options available to the United States with regard to the One Belt and One Road initiative
Experts believe that the United States can potentially adopt three strategies toward this initiative:
1. Not accepting the initiative and resisting it: This option will pit China and the United States against each other and will also increase tensions between the United States and is allies most of whom are facing dire economic problems and need China’s investment.
2. The United States can become a full partner to this initiative: The risk inherent to this option is that China may try to use US cooperation for boosting its own power and domination. On the other hand, some regional allies of the United States, including India, would not like this cooperation. It will also promote the standing of some of the US adversaries like Iran. Finally, China may also not want to have the United States as a partner, because it considers this initialize as its own.
3. Constructive partnership: This option can impart a pragmatic, yet resilient, role to the United States. This strategy can have five main pillars: 1. Confirmation, modification and interaction; 2. Determination of red lines; 3. Determining the role of the United States; 4. Cooperating with this initiative within framework of overall relations between China and the United States; and 5. Presenting special views on infrastructural development.
Without a doubt, Washington’s approach to the One Belt and One Road initiative will leave its mark on relations between China and the United States. In fact, many differences that exist between the United States and China are insurmountable and, in a best case scenario, are only manageable. Therefore, it is important for both countries to define a common goal and field of cooperation and sustain their relations at times when they are facing problems. Focusing on development of infrastructure is one of those major areas of cooperation that can be realized through the One Belt and One Road initiative. Many American experts believe that this country must not view China’s initiative merely from a geopolitical angle, because in this case, it will lose the bigger geo-economic picture.

Hossein Asgarian, a researcher on Eurasian affairs, is the senior fellow at Tehran-based TISRI Institute

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