China recently marked the 10th anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative ( BRI) by gathering national leaders from 23 countries across the world, including from South America, Africa, and Asia, in Beijing.
Europe essentially boycotted the Belt and Road Forum (BRF). The 2017 forum saw 10 representatives from European countries attend, and there were 11 in 2019. This year, just two European leaders made the trip: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The US, of course, hasn’t attended any of the forums. As this most recent BRF was underway and following the BRICS expansion and the West’s increasing isolation on the Palestine-Israel issue, I couldn’t help but think of Beijing’s repeated invitations for the US to partner with them in the BRI:
Later in the video Thornton revealed that Kerry told him that not taking up China’s offer to jointly do the BRI was “the single biggest missed opportunity of my life”. pic.twitter.com/YHYw1MoxrX
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) June 1, 2023
China has invited US to join in the Belt and Road initiative since 2013, China invites US almost every year, the last invitation was in March this year… pic.twitter.com/zqwyd0s5AL
— Lei 🎋🥭🇵🇸🎈 (@luckbeide001) September 19, 2022
The US initially dismissed the BRI and then became threatened by it.
Initially, US was convinced China was an idiot throwing money away on infrastructure for third world with no prospects of profitability. China invited US to join but was refused. Now US wants to copy. The world is already grateful if US doesn’t bomb the existing infrastructure… pic.twitter.com/6ZJP3Q4Nif
— America-China Watcher (@PandemicTruther) May 6, 2021
The US could have helped steer projects that would have also benefited the US if it had partnered with China, but it’s inconceivable that the US Blob would ever seriously entertain such a proposal, which would require a complete rethink of decades of US foreign policy that prioritizes rentierism and conflict over all else.
Instead we got the usual aggressive responses: the ill-fated TPP, sanctions, export bans, a new Cold War, a spy balloon scandal, the disastrous effort to weaken Russia before taking on China, the successful effort to sever Europe from Eurasia to disastrous effect for Europe, and the desire to see a Ukraine sequel in Taiwan.
It’s impressive what the BRI has already accomplished despite setbacks here and there. According to a Chinese white paper on the BRI, released just prior to the recent forum, Beijing has “signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations across five continents.” And while BRI lending has dropped in recent years, it will continue to be a major piece of China’s foreign and economic policy going forward.
Imagine what it could have done with a good faith US partner. The world’s two largest economies joining together to build a more prosperous world would have been quite the development.
Rather than all the billions the US has spent in recent years pointlessly extinguishing lives in Ukraine and elsewhere, the US could have spent that money at home, say, housing the millions of Americans living in modern day Hoovervilles. They could have asked the Chinese for help to build high speed rail lines. There could be massive infrastructure spending in Latin America rather than coups and drug wars. The possibilities are endless.
Instead, Washington will spend its time hatching plans to tear down efforts like the BRI and BRICS . The US, meanwhile, is on its umpteenth plan to rival the BRI. The India-Middle East-EU transport corridor (IMEC) is the latest iteration, but it’s already running into problems with the situation in the Middle East. Aspects of the plan appeared to have lacked thought from the outset:
Hilarious irony of the day. This is the map of the new India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) that’s presented as (yet another) initiative to “counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative”.
Where does the corridor end? In the port of Piraeus. Who owns that port? China 🤣 pic.twitter.com/fBAzGmklbx
— Arnaud Bertrand (@RnaudBertrand) September 11, 2023
The anti-democracy Trans-Pacific Partnership was another one, as was the G7 “Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment,” but none have had the impact or staying power of the BRI.
That could be because the goals behind China and the US efforts are not the same. China is attempting to spread development. Sure, it isn’t just a giveaway. The BRI helps Beijing to develop new trade ties, secure critical materials, open export markets and boost Chinese incomes. What exactly is the US-led West offering?
The Council on Foreign Relations admits that “Washington has struggled to offer participating governments a more appealing economic vision.” Or is it simply that the vision offered by Washington is increasingly dystopian, anti-democratic, and filled with austerity and plunder that only enriches the already-rich in the West.
A Classic Case of US Projection
For years US officials and their friends in the media have accused Beijing of practicing debt trap diplomacy with the BRI and other lending.
Deborah Bräutigam, the Director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, has written that this is “ a lie, and a powerful one.” She wrote, “our research shows that Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country.”
Even researchers at Chatham House admit that’s not the case, explaining that the lending has instead created a debt trap for China. That is becoming more evident as nations are unable to repay, largely due to the economic fallout from the pandemic and the US proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.
So while it is not true that China engages in debt traps, the same can not be said of the West. The US plan for the world is centered on more debt, more austerity, more conflict, and more profits for American corporations, which it accomplishes by getting countries to forfeit natural resources and crack down on labor in order to deal with foreign debt and get western loans.As Michael Hudson writes in The Destiny of Civilization:
The aim is to persuade low-wage countries that they can rise into the middle class if they let the U.S. and European investors establish factories for local labor-intensive production. A vocabulary of deception has been crafted to block them from recognizing that U.S. and European diplomacy aims at locking them into a foreign-debt trap that turns their domestic policy making over to foreign creditors. This trap enables the IMF and related U.S.-centered diplomacy to ‘bail them out’ by imposing austerity and debt deflation – capped by U.S. demands to control their rent-yielding natural resources and infrastructure monopolies.
The problem is countries are increasingly aware of this trap as its methods have been laid bare, and the US is often times left attempting to install dictators that will “cooperate” by selling out their countries. This is of course sold as joining the “democratic” West, while China represents “autocracy.”
One of the US’ biggest problems with China’s lending is that it represents an alternative to the West – and one that has also been willing to cancel and restructure debt. That is leading for calls for the West to do the same. African political economists, for example, are hopeful that China’s public and private debt forgiveness during the pandemic will apply pressure on western financial institutions to “rethink the harshness of their debt repayment-austerity governance model.”
This is what is so alarming for Washington is that China’s increased lending to Global South countries provides another option for countries that can allow them to avoid the Western debt trap. While Chinese loans typically provide some sort of geopolitical benefit to Beijing in some way the loan terms are never anywhere near as onerous as the typical IMF loan terms
China’s white paper released prior to the BRF can be seen as speaking to the Global South, for instance when it states, “the economic globalization dominated by a few countries has not contributed to the common development that delivers benefits to all…Many developing countries have benefited little from economic globalization and even lost their capacity for independent development, making it hard for them to access the track of modernization. Certain countries have practiced unilateralism, protectionism and hegemonism, hampering economic globalization and threatening a global economic recession.”
In August, China announced the forgiveness of 23 interest-free loans for 17 African nations, while also pledging to deepen its collaboration with the continent. Despite that gesture and its efforts to extend maturities, the West continues to hammer home the message that Beijing is engaged in debt-trap diplomacy with Yellen claiming multiple times that Beijing has become the biggest obstacle to “progress” in Africa.
While Beijing offers imperfect infrastructure-for-minerals deals, the US, offers up worthless token items like cultural ties (as Biden said at last year’s US-Africa Leaders Summit, the US has a significant population of African Americans. “I might add that includes my former boss,” he said.) and stuff like this:
Ghana’s debt problems will soon be behind us given that the US is sending a full-time resident debt advisor. This is the only ingredient that was missing. pic.twitter.com/62CUnJWX0C
— Grieve Chelwa (@gchelwa) March 27, 2023
It is becoming increasingly clear that the battle for hearts and minds in the Global South is over – a decisive victory for China. But much like the US’ new Cold War with Russia, the China version will also largely be decided in Europe.
Europe’s Big (Missed) Opportunity
Zhou Bo, a retired PLA colonel and current senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, reveals the view from China:
The competition between the two giants won’t be in the Global South, where the US has already lost out to China, while in the Indo-Pacific, few nations want to take sides. Rather, it will be in Europe, where the US has most of its allies and China is the largest trading partner.
It wasn’t that long ago that it looked like Europe might wake up and join in the emerging multipolar world. Italy joined the BRI back in 2019. Other nations were increasing ties with Beijing and Russia (a few like Hungary still are). But that all came to a halt with the Ukraine war as the US has tightened its grip over Europe.
The contradictions and rudderlessness of the EU’s policy are evident in Italy’s attempts now to extricate itself from the BRI. Despite its economic struggles, Italy is tasked with doing so simply because that is the dominant attitude in the West now. Meanwhile Rome simultaneously seeks to boost economic ties with Beijing. Make sense? The South China Morning Post quotes Lorenzo Codogno, chief economist at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance from 2006 to 2015, saying the following:
“The issue for Italy right now is how to move out of the [belt and road], which is a political and not an economic tool, while maintaining or maybe strengthening the economic links with China. That is the challenge Meloni faces.”
The piece also mentions the belief that Italy has damaged its reputation in the West due to its wayward ways. As Rome plots its exit, it is unthinkable that an EU state would sign on to the BRI or attempt to strengthen ties with China in today’s climate.
Germany continues its self-immolation by erecting barriers between itself and its largest trading partner. And the EU has generally become a laughingstock on the world stage due to its self-harming subservience to Washington.
China, at least, still holds out hope, with repeated statements like the following from The Global Times:
China treasures its relationship with the EU, always considering Europe as an indispensable trade and economic partner, and more importantly, a benign force to maintain global diversity and plurality in an increasingly volatile world. China’s 1.4 billion people hope that Europe could maintain its soberness and impartiality – not to toe the political line set by the US government. The EU should judge China independently.
The US government has coerced European countries to play with bans, export controls and other restrictive measures to limit Chinese access to advanced tools and technologies, a blatant assault on China’s future development prospects.
By all metrics, acting as each other’s heavyweight trade partners, the EU and China have benefited a lot from their close economic relationship. The two giant economies should build up the favorable partnership, create a fair and nondiscriminatory business environment for each other’s enterprises, and always stick to the win-win mentality.
Beijing continues to humor EU leaders but the frustration is growing, as it is elsewhere with Brussels. Meanwhile events will continue to pass the EU by as Eurasian integration continues and Brussels clings to Washington. It may take true nationalist forces in Europe to emerge in order to break the EU and the US control over the bloc. As Michael Hudson writes:
There is still a tendency to think of nationalism as a retrograde step. But for foreign countries, breaking away from today’s unipolar global system of U.S.-centered financialization is the only way to create a viable alternative that can resist the New Cold War’s attempt to destroy any alternative system and to impose U.S.-client rentier dictatorships on the world.
Now no doubt Beijing has many of its own problems with neoliberalism, surveillance, etc, but in international affairs one thing is sure. China constantly harps on win-win arrangements.
It is aggressive US policies that are driving the new cold war, not China. Beijing has constantly called for peace and cooperation.
President Xi emphasized this again in his speech at the Belt and Road Forum on October 18, stressing “mutual benefit, common development,… pic.twitter.com/zYHG00MBR3
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) October 23, 2023
It attempts to find ways it can benefit in tandem with other nations. And it takes diplomacy seriously, thus far not resorting to force in an attempt to advance political objectives. In essence, on the world stage China is the opposite of the US, and it will continue to play an outsized role in the emerging multipolarity.
Right now, the US is making it easier for them to build a more China-centric alternative world order, helping countries overlook their differences because they see a common threat to their national interest, which is an overly aggressive declining hegemon in the US.
Indeed, it has become self-fulfilling. The more China, Russia, India, etc. build up that multipolar world order, the more the US works to undermine it with coups, sanctions, threats. This only hardens the resolve of the other powers and Global South countries. Meanwhile the US works harder trying to tear things down.
Maybe Biden will show some statesmanship at his upcoming meeting with Xi by rethinking the US aggressive stance towards China. It would be smart domestic politics, as well. According to recent polling by National Security Action and Foreign Policy for America, only 13 percent of Americans want an aggressive approach and 5 percent want a confrontational one with China. 78 percent of Americans want to focus more on working to avoid a military conflict with China. But relying on Biden or anyone in neocon-dominated Washington for deft foreign policy isn’t a smart bet.
The real question is just how much destruction the US will cause in the transition to a more multipolar world – one where it must practice actual diplomacy and work with other countries.
That day will likely come first in Europe where there are at least rumblings of throwing off the US shackles, throwing out US lackeys, and pursuing European interests (or the interests of individual European states). The EU project may have to die first but that one can envision. Whether its Brexit forces, or the AfD in Germany, or Orban in Hungary, Fico in Slovakia, there are increasing calls for national interests (even if their idea of nationalism seeks to serve local oligarchies or right wing fantasies). Speaking of Orban, according to the Chinese readout, of his BFR meeting with Xi, Orban stated that Hungary “will continue to be China’s trusted friend and partner in the European Union” and “opposes any decoupling and breakage of supply and industrial chains or the so-called ‘de-risking’ practices.” This goes directly against the European Commission’s economic security strategy.More governments are bound to follow Orban’s lead.
As the conflicts ramp up as part of the US effort to maintain its hegemony, we will unfortunately never know what might have been instead had the US said yes to one of Beijing’s invitations to partner in the BRI and accepted a peaceful transition to a multipolar world.