U.S. Options to Counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Cadet Third Class Sierra Hillard is a History and Biology major at the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense. PA#: USAFA-DF-2021-146 Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation: As China’s Belt and Road Initiative solidifies, the United States faces a rising threat from their near-peer adversary with several possible response options outlined below.

Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a cadet (active duty military member) at the United States Air Force Academy and believes the United States must take a stance toward China’s actions with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Background: The U.S. National Security Strategy outlines China as a challenge to American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity, and thus a near-peer adversary requiring the attention of the United States[1]. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) created by President Xi Jinping in 2013 poses one such threat. The BRI represents China’s growing ambitions to create connections and influence across the world[2]. Currently, the BRI includes 71 countries representing almost two-thirds of the world’s population and a third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product[3]. The BRI refers to the countries China has given financial aid to in exchange for influence and control of that country.

Significance: BRI is a risk to U.S. power and could lead to the U.S. losing its influence on the world stage. China primarily interacts in a form of indirect warfare. The BRI creates connections and alliances that China can use to gain political and economic control of many nations around the world.

Option #1: The U.S. develops its own version of the BRI.

The United States could develop a similar plan to build alliances and connections to counteract those created by China’s BRI. Currently, Europe is considering following a similar option. The economic security of Europe relies on maintaining an orderly and open line of trade in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean[4]. The United States relies on the same. Europe has developed the European Union (EU)-Japan Connectivity Partnership. In order to solidify and protect their political and economic interests, the EU created the partnership with European and Asian nations. The partnership gives nations an alternative to the BRI and provides structure and confidence in trading with the EU[4]. The goal would be to create a similar program geared towards insuring the protection of U.S. interests.

Risk: The United States reputation could be negatively impacted. The BRI and a similar program created by the U.S. would directly create more infrastructure and could receive push back as being environmentally irresponsible[2]. Additionally, the option could lead to a more visible international power struggle between the U.S. and China over other nations. The program would also be incredibly expensive and the U.S. would be starting 15 years behind China. With more focus on this indirect approach, the U.S. could lose capacity and capability in more direct approaches such as conventional styles of warfare. China’s reaction to this option the largest unknown and most vital factor to the outcome. “At any point in the future, the resulting equilibrium will reside somewhere along a spectrum that extends from pure cooperation at one end to unrestrained competition at the other[4].”

Gain: The option would cultivate relations with partners and allies and require the U.S. to update their current financial institutions[5]. It would also encourage the U.S. to take a proactive approach to infrastructure while maintaining a check on China’s spread of influence without directly attacking the BRI. Additionally, the option increases the possibility of trade.

Option #2: The United States takes actions to decrease China’s BRI’s effectiveness.

This option includes actively preventing China from controlling the South China Sea, the U.S. rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership[6], and engaging in active “burden-shifting”[7]. Burden-shifting is allowing China to take the brunt of the expenses in areas where U.S. and Chinese interests significantly overlap[7]. Actions taken could be area specific, for example, focusing on local news outlets in African countries at the center of China’s BRI[8]. The key would be actively engaging with China to clearly express U.S intolerance over the BRI and to actively attempt to disrupt the BRI’s effectiveness. This option would be the closest to direct engagement with China.

Risk: The option poses the risk of China taking active steps against the U.S., shifting from economic instruments of power to military instruments of power. Additionally, the U.S. could be viewed as the aggressor, causing an escalation of completion between the two nations. This option would also demand significant resources and be draining for the U.S.

Gain: The approach is more proactive and gives the U.S. an opportunity to demonstrate their global power and influence. The option would also minimize China’s spread of influence and demonstrate the capabilities of the U.S. on the international level. Additionally, it would utilize economic instruments of power.

Option #3: The United States could continue its current position and remain a “neutral party, while maintaining military dominance[5].”

The U.S. would maintain its current trajectory and focus on initiatives close to home. The option would focus on developing infrastructure within the U.S. and not overreach into other nations. The BRI is extremely expensive for China and the U.S. could wait for China to deplete their own resources. China has to take into account transport, trade, infrastructure, and energy use, all of which are extremely expensive on the international level[9]. The U.S. would allow China to test the sustainability of a program like BRI[10]. This option would be following a path of restraint.

Risk: The U.S. risks a loss of global influence, particularly in Asia. It could have a negative impact on international trade and the U.S. economy. The option could lead to a power vacuum as the area normally filled by the U.S. slowly becomes open for other nations to utilize. China is known for taking advantage of such power vacuums and the result could be disastrous for the U.S.[11]. Overall, the U.S. would be in a weaker position internationally.

Gain: The U.S. would become stronger domestically. Additionally, it would be a low cost option and simple to maintain. The option would conserve American labor for use towards domestic development projects and potentially save American lives if a war were avoided.