In the aptly named “Better to be Godzilla than Bambi,” University of Chicago professor and seminal theorist John Mearsheimer argued that “[China’s] ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—the only great power in the system… to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere.” Mearsheimer believes that China’s economic initiative One Belt, One Road functions as a means for China to counter the Obama administration’s efforts to establish an American presence in East Asia through its Asian Pivot, and could push the United States’s political influence out of the region entirely.
Announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, One Belt One Road focuses on several maritime and land regions stretching from East Asia to the Mediterranean, and targets them for infrastructure development and the construction of trade routes. The name of the initiative renders this evident—the Belt refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land route from Central China to Western Europe, while the Road refers to the Maritime Silk Road, stretching from Chinese-controlled ports in Southeast Asia (particularly in Fuzhou) to the Horn of Africa and Western Europe.
The bill for this initiative is footed in part by China and in part by foreign direct investment. Two institutions, namely, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, are managing the majority of the assets and investments that China is mobilizing into OBOR. Neither the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, led by China, nor the New Development Bank, whose constituents are BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), reflect the power balances of other international financial institutions, where Western European and North Atlantic countries tend to have greater say over fiscal and monetary policy.
One Belt, One Road (OBOR) has drawn series of comparisons from theorists, scholars, and analysts. Some, like Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, have called it a Chinese Marshall Plan, an effort to relax trade restrictions and stimulate economic growth and infrastructure development across the Afro-Eurasian continent. Others have compared it to a Chinese Monroe Doctrine, a clear foreign-policy message to other great powers across the world to maintain their distance from the regions in which they are active. Few have compared it to Japan’s imperial efforts in the 1930’s to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, creating a bloc centrally managed by China that would be adversarial to the West.
China’s OBOR, however, is historically unique, and resists comparisons. Combining economic engagement, new transportation infrastructure, new trade routes, the construction of offshore military bases, resource extraction efforts, and the promotion of industrialization, the initiative, which has been estimated to cost in the range of four to eight trillion dollars, will greatly increase Chinese hegemony and its market share of the world economy. While OBOR would mount a challenge to the United States’ status in East Asia, the Middle East, and Central Europe as the chief offshore balancer and security provider, and would greatly strengthen non-Western institutions, there are also certainly points of China’s initiative that merit the United States’ interest and cooperation.
The Trump administration has had little to no interest in One Belt, One Road, and has declared China an absolute adversary while dramatically scaling back the United States’ presence in East Asia, from withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to threatening the withdrawal of security guarantees to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. The more effective strategy to counter the direct challenges that OBOR poses is, rather than ignore it, to scale up our engagement with regions where China is seeking to occupy an economic vacuum, avoid direct antagonism of China, and look to work with the Chinese Foreign Ministry in regions where our interests overlap, all while acknowledging that no matter how poorly regarded the United States’ role in the world is, we remain a better offshore influence than China.
China’s new global presence
OBOR’s economic ventures serve to resolve several key issues in the Chinese economy. First, China’s rate of industrialization has outpaced their rates of resource accumulation and trade, to the point where they have the capacity to manufacture far more goods than their resources suggest. Given this depreciation, China is looking to engage with resource-rich nations along the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. By doing so, China would not only be able to satisfy its capacity for industrialization, but would also have access to readymade markets for its manufactured goods. This model for economic expansion has invited comparisons to imperialist economies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Eric Olander of the Huffington Post remarks, that “OBOR is also reminiscent of Britain’s old imperial trading network that was designed to extract natural resources from its colonial outposts and then sell back finished goods to these markets.”
Second, looking to create markets for its goods in Afro-Eurasian nations ensures that China no longer must necessarily depend on the West as a stable and consistent consumer. Recent threats by the Trump administration to levy tariffs on Chinese goods and to ignite a trade war, for example, suggest that the United States’ trade interdependence with China is at risk. The World Bank has found that already the region most economically engaged with China is sub-Saharan Africa. The Heritage Foundation noted that as of last year, China had begun constructing a network of transportation infrastructure connecting fifty-four African nations to one another and, via maritime routes, back to China.
On face, the goal of OBOR is economic engagement, and much of the justifications for its military initiatives orbit the economic goals that China has established. As a result, with OBOR comes a greater naval and land presence from China across the world, which China argues is necessary to defend and maintain their newest trade routes and infrastructure developments.
China’s naval influence now stretches across the coast of the Indian Ocean. Beginning in Fuzhou, with its midpoint around Gwadar, Pakistan, and stretching to the newly developed Chinese base in Djibouti, the Maritime Silk Road is accompanied by naval bases at nearly every major port along its route. Peter Dutton, professor at the US Naval War College, finds this unsurprising. “[This] is naval power expansion for protecting commerce and China's regional interests in the Horn of Africa … this is what expansionary powers do,” he writes.
China’s newest and most distant base in Djibouti has drawn attention to its growing land presence as well. The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue notes that since as early as Somali piracy crises in 2007, China has kept an active involvement in conflict resolution throughout Africa. More recently in 2015, China announced a $100 million gift to the African Union for the creation of an AU standby force. It has also a growing troop presence in Djibouti. Lyle Morris of the RAND Corporation stated that, “China’s participation in conflict resolution will be an unavoidable byproduct of increased Chinese engagement.” The connection is simple – conflict resolution by China can be easily explained not as the implementation or imposition of its foreign policy and values at home, but as an effort to defend its own goods and trade routes. The countries China is investing are often mired in insurgency, political risk, and unstable governance, particularly in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Central Africa.
Potential conflicts with the strategic interests of the United States
China’s base in Djibouti drew far more attention from American journalists than other OBOR projects. This was largely due to its proximity to an existing United States military base, Camp Lemonnier, which the United States uses as the head of its African Command (AFRICOM) and as a base for operations in and around Africa and particularly the Horn region. Camp Lemonnier is also notable for its involvement in US Special Forces and counterterror operations. Its proximity to Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, just across the Mandeb Strait, make it what The Economist calls “the most important base for drone operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan.” The waterway by the two bases is also notable for its significance to the oil trade; its strategic location between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden makes it a hub for oil exports, where nearly 3.8 million barrels of oil a year pass through.
China’s particular relationship with Djibouti also serves to highlight a general way in which its methods of engagement with the developing world differ from ours. China’s financing of infrastructure in Djibouti and financial support for the regime of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, the dictator of Djibouti, comes with almost no restrictions or conditions on how funds are allocated. Congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Chris Smith (R-NJ) have all denounced the stream of $20 million a year to Guelleh’s regime for the base alone and the close relationship between China and Guelleh that their financial relationship portends. The Diplomat has found, in fact, that China’s financial support has tacitly endorsed further anti-democratic action by Guelleh, who has begun to rely more on torture, the arrest and suppression of his opposition, and dishonest electoral practices to maintain his power. Most developed nations prohibit their firms from investing in Djibouti—China does the opposite, with its firms engaging in a free trade zone recently established in Djibouti and financing much of their public infrastructure.
Generally, China’s engagement with other countries comes at the cost of the propagation of conditions that generate high political risk. Whether it be in Djibouti or elsewhere, countries targeted by OBOR tend to see China turn a blind eye to their internal affairs in exchange for Chinese firms to fill their economic vacuums.
Thus, when China engages in world markets as with OBOR-related investments, it turns not to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank; instead, it turns to institutions with politics it knows it can control, like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the New Development Bank (NDB). Loans from the World Bank and IMF tend to be contingent on good governance, human rights and ethics reform, and far stricter economic policies. These conditions, called structural adjustment programs, are not necessary in the AIIB or the NDB, which reflect the interests of the Chinese government above the international community at large. These interests tend not to be ideologically liberal but are motivated by a desire to have a greater say in global affairs in a time of uncertainty, control a market for its manufactured goods and the resources to produce them, and protect those newly established markets. This is not to say that structural adjustment programs are perfect; if anything, they tend to drive poverty and inequality up in developing nations. Even though these programs can be ineffective, they demonstrate a commitment towards the end goal of good governance that Chinese-controlled institutions lay aside and have no interest in working to implement.
It is incumbent upon the Trump Administration to, rather than detach itself from the affairs of Central Asia, Africa, and Europe, focus on providing a middle ground between dictating the affairs of these regions and abandoning them. The administration ought to provide economic opportunities to the regions China engages with, stay involved, and ensure that the countries in which we do so maintains a level of democratic governance and a respect for human rights that other great powers that would otherwise control them would not engender. Which influencer on world politics would we prefer—the United States (even under Trump) and financial institutions that call for political reform as a condition on loans, or Xi Jinping, who tacitly accepts the dangerous and unstable politics of the nations which OBOR supports?
Josh Zakharov is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.