BY: CLAYTON CHENEY
The growing geostrategic competition between the United States and China dominated the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. From November 13ththrough 15th, ASEAN member states met in Singapore to discuss a range of security and economic issues, while Papua New Guinea hosted the APEC summit on November 17thand 18th, but the summit concluded without any formal written declaration for the first time in APEC history. Increased tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations, on a variety of issues from trade, to the South China Sea, to development financing, was apparent throughout the summits and there are mounting concerns that nations will have to choose between siding with the United States or China.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure investment initiative, was a flashpoint of contention between the United States and China, as well as a focal point of discussion among ASEAN and APEC member states during the summits. China defended the BRI, President Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative, against criticisms that it was causing unsustainable debt among recipient nations and that it was being used as a tool to obtain geopolitical clout throughout the region. The United States, as well as several close allies, used the summits as a forum to put forward their own alternatives to BRI infrastructure funding, which is key to future economic growth in the region.
Several ASEAN members have pushed back against the BRI, most notably Malaysia’s recent decision to cancel two BRI projects worth $23 billion, citing examples of China using infrastructure financing as a Trojan horse to achieve geostrategic gains by creating unsustainable debt burdens. The most prominent example of this kind of debt trap or checkbook diplomacy occurred in Sri Lanka, where the government was forced to give up control of a newly constructed port to a Chinese State-owned company when it could not service its BRI-related debt.
In addition to criticisms of unsustainable debt levels, the BRI has also caused consternation among Asian nations due to China’s opaque lending practices and its insistence on using single-bid contracts that result in Chinese companies obtaining the overwhelming majority of BRI contracts at the expense of local workers. These practices create a ripe environment for corruption, which undermines the overall viability of the BRI. As China moves forward with the BRI, it will need to make systemic changes to its BRI practices or it will risk losing support among local populations and governments, both of which are vital to the overall success of the BRI.
At the APEC summit, United States Vice-President Mike Pence laid out a competing vision to the BRI. Vice-President Pence criticized China’s BRI as being a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.” He claimed that the United States’ alternative, which is driven by public and private sector collaboration, would pursue commercially viable projects that benefitted local communities. However, the United States proposed alternative development financing, amounting to $60 billion in financing for the Indo-Pacific region, pales in comparison to the size and magnitude of BRI financing in the region. The proposal did receive the backing of regional powers, including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but the United States’ proposal will need to be built upon to a far greater extent; especially if a viable alternative to opaque, bilateral Chinese-BRI financing is going to be provided to ASEAN member states and other nations in the region.
The use of the multilateral summits in Singapore and Papua New Guinea by the United States and China as forums for their great power competition foreshadows a dangerous geopolitical future in Asia and beyond. As tensions between the two global superpowers escalate, it will become increasingly likely that nations will be forced to align themselves with one side, which would resemble the global architecture of the Cold War when rival blocs aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The BRI provides a unique confidence building opportunity, where both the United States and China agree that large-scale infrastructure financing for developing nations is in their national interests. The focus moving forward should be on enhancing efforts to find common ground on how this financing can be provided in a cooperative rather than competitive manner. Such efforts should center around regional infrastructure financing that is transparent, adheres to international standards, employs local labor forces, prevents corruption, and when possible, is achieved on the multilateral level. The current trajectory of the BRI and the alternative provided by the United States indicates that the foreseeable future is likely to be marked by increased great power competition, which will undermine regional stability, increase tensions between the United States and China, and will not result in the greatest possible benefit for recipient nations. As one prominent Australian security and international affairs analyst noted, “[T]he scene is now set for prolonged confrontation” between the United States and China.
Clayton Cheney is an attorney in New York City. He received his MS in Global Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and energy issues from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He has a background in international human rights law and public international law.
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