Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a staple of Chinese foreign policy, is a multitrillion-dollar investment project that has the potential to unseat the United States as the world’s leading superpower. It has taken over seven years, but the U.S. has finally taken steps to compete with China, through the “Build Back Better World” (B3W) plan unveiled at the recent G-7 summit. Even so, America’s response leaves much to be desired.
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Money talks. Of the many lessons from the massive struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries, this aphorism nears the top of the list. Britain’s “Golden Cavalry of St. George” bankrolled the Russian and Austrian armies during the Napoleonic Wars. The United States’ Lend-Lease program during World War II supplied the Allies years before we officially entered the war. Most famous of all was the Marshall Plan, a $13 billion, four-year-long program designed by the Truman administration to combat Europe’s precipitous post-war economic decline. Enacted in 1948, it would be equivalent to about $146 billion in 2021.
That said, in 2019, the U.S. spent nearly $40 billion on foreign aid, which is actually more than the adjusted annual amount (~$36 billion) spent during the Marshall Plan. What makes the Marshall Plan unique, however, is that it was almost entirely economic assistance. Today, as was the case during the continental and global conflicts of the past two centuries, the vast majority of aid given was in military forms, such as through subsidized arms deals and financing recruitment. The Marshall Plan’s more direct form of financial assistance reeled impoverished European nations in to the negotiating table.
As evidenced by internal memos written in 1947 by Under Secretary of State William Clayton and State Department policy planners, American leaders were careful to avoid framing the Marshall Plan as a scheme to compete with the Soviets. They were skeptical of the public’s willingness to support another international power struggle and were worried about Joseph Stalin using his strength and influence to interfere with the program.
For all the brotherly compassion Americans seemed to have genuinely felt toward Europeans, internal documents express a genuine fear of the slowly collapsing morale on the continent. Policy-makers correctly pointed out that chaos is the perfect ladder for totalitarians and communists. As such, the economic assistance was conditional. Recipient nations needed to buy American and liberalize their economies. Americans presented the Marshall Plan as an innocent plan for economic recovery alone, but the ulterior motive of moving European industry to the right is evident.
“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos,” Secretary George Marshall explained. The Marshall Plan largely succeeded in its goals, but it did not go perfectly. Shrewdly, our former leaders used polite, universally appealing rhetoric to lower the guard of the Soviets, and Stalin initially permitted the Eastern Bloc to enter negotiations. Unfortunately, his smarter subordinates saw through the lofty speeches, and the USSR quickly retaliated with the Molotov Plan to prevent U.S. capital from dominating the entire continent.
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The similarities between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Marshall Plan are astonishing, down to the messaging. “The programs of development will be open and inclusive, not exclusive,” Xi Jinping proclaimed, with state media framing the plan as an opportunity for nations across the world to engage in fair, mutually beneficial trade. As Therese Shereen has explained, this is a charade meant to exploit poorer nations. Through debt traps and Sino-centered trade deals, the Chinese Communist Party could use its leverage to combat America’s military presence in Southeast Asia. Not only would this jeopardize the safety of Taiwan and Japan, but it also poses a major national-security threat. We cannot allow our allies to be brutalized and oppressed in the way Tibet was, or let our troops be threatened.
Horrifyingly, our leaders have done nothing to pull our allies away from the allure of the Dragon’s yuan. A total of 139 countries — together amounting to about 40 percent of the world’s total GDP — have joined the BRI, including NATO members and longstanding allies such as Italy, New Zealand, South Korea, and Turkey. Thanks to the foolishness of the Obama and Trump administrations, B3W is already at a massive disadvantage. For all of Trump’s tough talk about trade, he utterly failed to provide a meaningful counteroffer to BRI member states.
In a strange twist, China’s initiative has placed the United States in the same position that the Soviets had been in the face of the Marshall Plan. But President Biden is incapable of projecting power in the manner that both Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin were able to (albeit in very different ways). The leaders of the G-7 must take a harder line against China and pressure their allies to look to non-genocidal sources of investment. Offering an alternative is not enough if countries such as Austria and Greece remain latched to an enemy, especially when our version of the Molotov Plan is seven years late. And while it is typically unwise (to say the least) to consult the Soviet example for advice, here there is actually something we can learn from it.
The Biden administration’s official statement on B3W gives further cause for concern. Irrespective of one’s sympathies with the White House’s goals of achieving international “gender equity” (whatever that entails) and combating climate change, this heavy-handed approach is doomed to failure. B3W’s obsession with “values-driven” investment is not reciprocated internationally. In 2019, after China received formal condemnation from 22 nations for placing millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps, 37 other countries rallied to voice support for China. Of these 37, a whopping 32 are currently members of the BRI. Burkina Faso, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, and Turkmenistan are the lone exceptions — and the latter four have all publicly expressed interest in joining. These are the countries whose support we need. Remember, history teaches us that money can easily override ideological convictions. How else could countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, nations that claim to represent and defend Islam, turn a blind eye to China’s treatment of the Uyghurs? However noble the goals of the G-7, we have to take realpolitik into account.
If the G-7 self-imposes limits on the growth of its own project through stifling clean-energy regulations, foreign powers will continue to ignore American cries for justice. Furthermore, B3W is being framed as, at least in large part, an investment venture for private institutions. What made the Marshall and Molotov plans — and what is currently making BRI — so appealing is that they were state-driven investment. Had these projects been privately driven, high-risk areas such as then-West Germany would have struggled to acquire the necessary capital. Few private companies want to invest in Greece, let alone crumbling countries such as Venezuela and Afghanistan. The U.S. has to be willing to lose money in this project, in the same way that China is. The goal is to acquire influence, and influence costs money.
The United States also does not need to quit trying to move the developing world in a direction more favorable to its values. But to inspire countries such as Nigeria and Tajikistan to be better, we must first wrench them away from the corrupting influence of the CCP’s cash. We need to make investment offers that are more appealing than China’s, just as the Soviets had in Eastern Bloc. We should use our leading position in NATO to oblige member states to abandon their deals with China. Trump succeeded in pressuring our European allies to pay more of their fair share of the bill, and we need that same kind of vigor and initiative now.
China has already used its financial might to silence corporate and political criticism of its cruelties. NBA and WWE stars have been forced to apologize for totally legitimate comments. John Cena was compelled to apologize in Mandarin for being impudent enough to refer to Taiwan as a country. The CCP continues to deny this island country membership in the World Health Organization, even throughout a pandemic.
There is no room for appeasement here. China is weaponizing capital to shape a new world order where the CCP is free to do as it pleases. That is not to say the United States is the perfect global hegemon. It is not. But when we compare the current political states of the U.S. and China, it should be clear which of the two is preferable.