06.04.2021 Author: Vladimir Terehov

President Joe Biden’s Answer to BRI


It is becoming clearer, to a certain extent, what US President Joe Biden was referring to in his comments about the first conversation (since his inauguration on January 20, 2021) over the telephone with China’s leader Xi Jinping on February 11 of this year. During a discussion with US senators the following day, the new US leader made a strange statement. He warned that the PRC would eat USA’s lunch if America did not “step up its infrastructure spending”.

Even at the time, it was reasonable to assume that the President was, in some sense, concerned with PRC’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This international infrastructure project can, in fact, be viewed as a real-life embodiment of the global socio-economic and philosophical concept – a “community of shared future”, described by Xi Jinping during his famous speech at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos.

In his remarks during the visit to the Delaware Air National Guard base in Wilmington DE on March 26, 2021, Joe Biden mentioned his telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The US President said that they had talked about the PRC and the competition its was engaging in via its Belt and Road Initiative. He also suggested that a similar initiative coming from the democratic states could help “those communities around the world that, in fact, need help”.

At around the same time, an article in Reuters reported that Joe Biden was planning to unveil a multi-trillion – dollar plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure in Pittsburgh the following week. It seems that the word “infrastructure” has special significance for the current US leader. This article will, however, focus only on the foreign policy-related aspects of these plans.

To start with, it is important to note that the essence of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative could be (roughly) described in three points (using Joe Biden’s terminology). Firstly, the lunch does not belong to “USA” or its allies, i.e. to any particular group of nations, but to everyone (the entire human race). Secondly, its preparation is still in initial stages, and in order to successfully complete the “cooking” process, it is essential to work together. Thirdly, the lunch, once it is ready, has to be shared with everyone so that no one goes hungry.

In fact, given some imagination, one could even discern similar ideas in Joe Biden’s brief remarks about the initiative from democratic nations, aimed at helping those around the world who are most in need. Hence, the concept behind the “democratic BRI” deserves some attention.

First of all, it is worth noting that the strategy behind PRC’s One Belt One Road initiative (currently referred to as BRI) did not materialize in 2013 out of nowhere, i.e. it was not based on pure theory. By that time, China had already visibly successfully expanded its economic clout in nations referred to (quite arbitrarily) as “underdeveloped”, which are home to most of the world’s population.

In other words, the “assistance” that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are planning (?) to provide has long been offered by the country that they both seemingly have issues with. At this point, it is worth pointing out that leaders of the “democratic world” should look for the source of these problems in their own countries too.

Continuously increasing assistance offered to the “underdeveloped” nations by the PRC was a recent topic of discussion in the New Eastern Outlook in connection with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of a number of African and Southeast Asian countries, his recent visits to the Greater Middle East are also noteworthy but they warrant a separate article.

Probably the main issue with the Biden-Johnson initiative is the fact that it is anchored on the idea of a potentially divided world and global confrontation, which will invariably occur on all fronts (including the economic, political and quite possibly military ones).

Several years ago, during a discussion about various projects aimed at developing infrastructure in Southeast Asia (which started as a result of PRC’s plans to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), it came to light that the sum required exceeded the worth of all the available financial assets in the region, which in theory, could have been used for these needs.

Still, the lack of necessary funds was bound to become an even bigger problem as decisions on how to allocate them would have to be made during the implementation of initiatives linked by similar aims.  And this was the situation leading up to forecasted global cataclysms, whose victims were, first and foremost, nations and people who the US President said were the most in need.

Is it possible that the idea of offering assistance to the aforementioned via the “democratic BRI” is nothing more than propaganda aimed at masking the political goal behind this initiative, which is to counter the growing popularity of USA’s and its allies’ key geopolitical opponent in the “underdeveloped” world? All in all, it would not be surprising if the answer to the aforementioned question was in fact a “yes”.

After all, the three previously defined points applicable to China’s BRI look, in all likelihood, as utter heresy in the eyes of current US and British elites, whose ideology appears to be based on that of Crusades and colonization and repression. Who would even come up with such an idea of “working together”, when it could be far simpler to just “come and take”.

Judging by a number of statements made by Joe Biden himself and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, an alliance of “democratic” nations will act as a counterweight to autocratic regimes, specifically that of China (together with Russia), i.e. the initiator and key implementer of BRI.

Taking into account the way the key exercise in democracy in the United States proceeded in 2020, the “democratic” values being promoted are unlikely to encompass, even in name only, the rule of the people. And the word “democratic” (which has positive connotations) will probably only be used to describe countries that are either current or potential allies of the US.

The idea of creating the aforementioned alliance is not new, in and of itself. In fact, it has, from time to time, been the topic of political debates and discussions. For instance, last year, Boris Johnson announced his plans to invite India, South Korea and Australia to the scheduled G-7 Summit, which, in 2021, will be held in Great Britain. It was not surprising that the Prime Minister of the host nation was able to make such a proposal, which, in turn, prompted political scientists to talk about the possibility of establishing the “democratic ten”.

It is also noteworthy that the idea of creating such an alliance must have arisen to counter the suggestion of former US President Donald Trump to invite Russia to the G7 Summit, probably, in order to breathe some life into this seemingly pointless organization.

However, it is unlikely that the (hypothetical) D-10 has any chance of becoming anything but a forum (i.e. yet another Pickwick Club or a platform for endless discussions). And as we are all aware, at present, it is easy to lose count of similar organizations. It is seemingly premature to talk about the Democratic 10 while the Quad is yet to expand beyond a forum (and may even fail to do so) for one obvious reason, in the author’s opinion, – different approaches of its participants towards China. And one of the main reasons, why various alliances, such as the Quad, Democratic 10, are being created is to counter PRC’s global influence.

In conclusion, it is worth pointing out the key difference between the current states of Xi Jinping’s BRI and Joe Biden’s hypothetical democratic alliance. The former is in the process of being actually implemented. In fact, this initiative was born at least ten years prior to the announcement about it by the Chinese leader. In contrast, little is known about the latter, other than the vague statements made about it by the current US President.

If the author were to ask what developments (if any) to expect from the idea behind the “democratic” BRI, the answer, at present, would include pure conjecture and not evidence-based forecasts. After all, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the ever-changing factors that influence the way the current stage of the Global Chess Game is going.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.