The United States has an infrastructure problem, and China can be part of the solution, according to Sarwar Kashmeri, author of the new book, “China’s Grand Strategy: Weaving a New Silk Road to Global Primacy.”
The book centers on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an effort to bolster and increase China’s influence in the world through extensive economic partnerships. It’s a cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy, and the BRI is working with about 130 nations with major projects in Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. At a number of points, it stands to have a major impact on world trade routes that impact U.S. interests abroad, and this new book aims to explain the BRI to the masses, for policy experts and non-experts alike.
Kashmeri, a Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association and an Applied Research Fellow of the Peace and War Center at Norwich University in Northfield, said China wants to be the most influential country in the world, and the BRI seeks to accomplish this goal. He calls it the final part in a three-step grand strategy for China; the first two were establishing great national wealth and then strengthening coastal defenses.
Though the BRI has had its problems, Kashmeri said, its broad influence is too great for the U.S. to ignore. He argues that it’s time for the U.S. to confront a new global reality: a world economy where it is no longer number one.
“I’m not a declinist, as far as the U.S. is concerned. It is hugely rich, hugely intelligent, and America’s not going anywhere,” Kashmeri said in a recent interview. “But how is America going to deal with the new China, and how is China going to grow into its role in dealing with the U.S.?”
The BRI, which was announced in 2013, is a key foreign policy initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has noted the inspiration for the BRI is the old Silk Road, the ancient trading corridor connecting China to Central Asia and points beyond. Kashmeri called the BRI a “21st-century version of (the) Silk Road.”
“The key to success of this ancient network was that it was a win-win scenario for all,” he wrote.
That’s been the force behind the BRI’s momentum. And, in spite of rocky relations between the United States and China through the years, Kashmeri says the BRI and its significant resources could help the U.S., which is grappling with issues resulting from aging infrastructure. At the very least, Kashmeri says, our leaders in Washington must take the BRI’s impact more seriously.
“There’s so much focus on military thinking, there’s not enough time to focus on thinking ahead like we should,” Kashmeri said of Congress.
He added that China’s influence has already extended to U.S. infrastructure, even here in the Northeast. Kashmeri said the entire rail-car fleet of the MBTA in Boston is from China, coming from a company that has worked on projects for the BRI. Also, he said, the cars were put together in Springfield, Massachusetts, which created more than 200 local jobs.
Although it is not part of the BRI, Kashmeri said the MBTA project is a good example of how people need to work together, adding that the largest asset management firms in the U.S. have huge infrastructure funds they’re waiting to spend.
The BRI focuses on roads, bridges, railways, ports and other infrastructure elements to enhance the economic power of its partner countries while expanding China’s influence. Coastal infrastructure has been an important element. For example, BRI projects have already started to transform Gwadar in Pakistan into a major Indian Ocean maritime transit hub. This could allow China to gain control over the sea lanes connecting the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s petroleum passes each day, to the Indian Ocean. It is estimated that the BRI’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will generate about 700,000 direct jobs over the project’s 15-year life cycle.
For China, the BRI is a pathway toward making China’s existence sustainable for the long term. He compares the transformative impact of President Xi’s vision for the BRI to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon — both of which had a lasting impact on their respective countries.
“I don’t think they have any interest in becoming a dominant military power,” Kashmeri said of China.
He expands on that concept in his book.
“China is not following the American formula of constructing a vast military-industrial complex with scores of expensive military bases and treaty alliances,” Kashmeri wrote. “Instead, it is offering to help these countries finance and build roads, railways, ports, bridges, internet connectivity, energy pipelines and power-generating equipment — the infrastructure they need to modernize and increase their rate of growth but have not been able to afford.”
But Kashmeri doesn’t offer an entirely gleaming picture of the BRI’s short history. The Myitsone Dam project in Malaysia spurred great anti-Chinese sentiment in that country because, originally, the project was designed to mostly benefit China. In Pakistan, home to the BRI’s CPEC project, a suicide bomber with an armed separatist group targeted Chinese workers in August 2018, warning China to vacate the Balochistan territory.
Also, the United States has charged that China uses the BRI as a predatory program meant to gain ownership over foreign infrastructure through non-payment of debt — a claim Kashmeri says is, in most cases, incorrect.
Also, accusations of hacking intellectual property have fed mistrust of China in the West.
Other headwinds were more unexpected. Kashmeri writes that China was “caught on the back foot by the ferocity of … Trump’s tariffs on China’s exports to the U.S.”
Kashmeri says the ensuing years will present some challenges for the BRI. But despite the setbacks, the impact is undeniable, and Kashmeri says the U.S. will have to adapt. For example, it may compel the U.S. to re-think how it views alliances, which in many cases have been tied to military initiatives abroad.
Kashmiri’s book was recently the subject of a discussion hosted by the World Affairs Councils of America in Washington, D.C., with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Kashmeri asked Hagel about why the U.S. lacks a grand strategy in this case.
“I think we’re living in a world of 25 years ago” when it comes to policy makers, Hagel replied, adding, “No institution stays relevant to the challenges of our time forever in the same state, or in the same way it was founded.”
In an interview, Kashmeri called ignorance of the BRI “dangerous” for the U.S. A key principle in China’s decades-long strategy that led to this initiative could be momentous. Kashmeri said, “The essence of the grand strategy is flexibility.”
Harnessing that flexibility could help the U.S. break out of 25-year-old patterns and behaviors and bolster its alliances, perhaps even considering a new partnership with China. The “new Silk Road” is meeting critical needs for developing economies and expanding China’s influence in the world. In some way, the U.S. will have to come to terms with this fundamental shift on the international stage. The U.S. may find that the BRI, as it fosters important economic advancements abroad, is a new arena in which it’s important to play some kind of role, rather than sitting on the sidelines.