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America Shouldn’t Copy China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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For nearly a decade, U.S. policymakers have been wringing their hands about the Belt and Road Initiative, the massive infrastructure investment project through which China has financed and built bridges, ports, power plants, railways, tunnels, and 5G wireless networks around the world. The initiative has not only expanded China’s footprint but also indebted more global leaders to Beijing, in a literal sense: Chinese banks provide the finances to pay for this infrastructure. In June 2021, at the G-7 meeting held in the United Kingdom, U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled the West’s response to the program: the Build Back Better World initiative, also known as B3W. Biden promised that it would help “meet the enormous infrastructure needs of low- and middle-income countries,” with a particular focus on addressing climate, digital infrastructure, gender-equality, and health issues. The president offered few details about what exactly B3W would encompass, but the initiative was clearly pitched as a Western alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Since then, however, B3W has languished. Even the name has been scrapped, a casualty of legislative demise of the Build Back Better bill, the U.S. domestic legislative proposal that encompassed priorities as varied as environmental protection, reducing prescription drug prices, and universal preschool. A rebrand to “Partnership for Global Infrastructure” is underway.

Still, some B3W projects were announced in the spring of 2022. The Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership will provide $3.45 million this year in U.S. government funding for digital finance and Internet service providers; a $2.3 million set of grants has been made available to small solar energy providers; and the Biden administration will provide up to $50 million over five years to a World Bank trust fund trying to expand childcare—if Congress allocates the resources. Surely these are worthy expenditures, but what they mean is that about a year after Biden announced B3W, his administration’s commitments to the cause of global infrastructure renewal add up to a paltry $6 million. Even if Congress allocates the additional $50 million, that’s a far cry from the billions Biden promised in his original announcement.

This poor showing is no great loss, however, because B3W is the wrong approach to competing with China in the developing world. The United States is notoriously bad at investing in and maintaining its own physical infrastructure, so it never made sense for it to try to build infrastructure projects abroad. Those activities are best left to the multilateral economic institutions in which the........

© Foreign Affairs

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