The U.S. Can’t Make Allies Take Sides Over China

Washington wants its friends to steer clear of Beijing, but they can’t ignore the allure of its Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese paramilitary policemen walk past a display ahead of Beijing's Belt and Road Forum.
Chinese paramilitary policemen walk past a display ahead of Beijing's Belt and Road Forum. (Ng Han Guan / AP)

The next summit for China’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative, beginning on Thursday in Beijing, will host one especially welcome guest: Italy.

Washington pressured Rome, a proud member of the G7, to steer clear of Beijing’s global infrastructure-building program, warning that Italy’s participation “lends legitimacy to China’s predatory approach to investment and will bring no benefits to the Italian people.” The plea fell on deaf ears: Not only did Rome sign on to Belt and Road in March, no less a figure than the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, will attend this week’s gathering.

Italy’s snub may appear to be yet another sign that American power is on the wane while China’s is on the rise. Score: China 1, United States 0. But Italy’s decision is even more an indication of how such thinking has become dangerously out of date in the modern world order. While Washington still often perceives foreign policy in us-against-them terms, much of the rest of the world no longer does. That’s why in its attempts to contain China, the U.S. is discovering, to its dismay, that its allies aren’t always on board.

“No one wants to choose sides,” Parag Khanna, founder of the strategic advisory firm FutureMap and author of the book The Future Is Asian, told me. “We live in a multipolar system. No smart country sides with only one power. Instead they play all the powers off each other to derive maximum benefit for themselves.”

As the U.S. and China spar over everything from trade to technology, fears have risen that the world is spiraling into a renewed Cold War, with two ideologically opposed blocs battling it out for global dominance. But, as Khanna noted, that Cold War paradigm has “almost no relevancy” today.

Back when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in their nuclear-tipped global struggle, dividing up the world’s nation-states was much easier. The blocs were almost alternative universes, based on distinct political and economic systems, and choosing one camp or the other was clear-cut. (Not all countries wished to take a side, of course, which is why leaders of some developing nations launched the “Non-Aligned Movement.”)

This is not the case anymore. While Washington and Beijing have different political ideologies, akin in some ways to the former Cold War divide between the “free” and “unfree” worlds, their economies are tightly intertwined with each other’s, and with the rest of the world’s. Longtime security allies of the U.S., such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany, also have strong trade and investment links with China that are crucial to their economic future. So while they are not prepared to ditch their alliance with Washington, they can’t afford to unduly alienate Beijing, either. Add in other divisions—the strained relations between the U.S. and Europe, for instance, or within the European Union itself—and the global picture becomes even fuzzier.

All these geopolitical complexities are tied up in this week’s Belt and Road Forum. The initiative, also known as One Belt, One Road, is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and aims to build railways, port facilities, power systems, and other infrastructure across the globe. Xi has sold it all as a model of peaceful development. “We should foster a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation,” he once said when discussing the initiative. Washington has painted a very different picture, of a self-serving scheme designed to extend Chinese strategic and economic influence. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently charged that the Belt and Road plan was “a non-economic offer,” and said Washington was “working diligently to make sure everyone in the world understands that threat.”

Granted, the Belt and Road program has run into its fair share of potholes. The amorphous program lacks transparency on how projects get chosen, financed, and built, and major Asian countries have either stayed away or minimized their involvement. India—even more distrustful of China than it is desperate for infrastructure—has rebuffed Beijing’s advances. In Pakistan, Belt and Road projects are being blamed for burying the country in debt, forcing the government in Islamabad to scale back the building program.

But generally, countries of diverse political persuasions can’t stay away. Some governments simply need Chinese cash to help finance roads, rails, and other infrastructure. Others want a piece of the construction action: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Swiss President Ueli Maurer are expected to join Italy’s Conte at this week’s gathering. So is Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who initially shelved a high-profile rail development and other Chinese-backed projects, complaining of the excessive price tag; he’s back on board after wrangling a better deal for the contentious railway. In all, the Chinese government says that 125 countries have signed on to the program.

The U.S. is not having much success in other points of conflict with China, either. Washington is on a strident campaign to persuade its allies to bar telecommunications equipment made by China’s Huawei Technologies, claiming that its gear presents a security threat. Some traditional allies share that fear; Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei from building their next-generation mobile-data networks, and the United Kingdom is leaning that way too. But Huawei is hardly a company on the ropes. According to its latest annual report, Huawei’s revenue in 2018 jumped nearly 20 percent from last year, to $105 billion. The company ranked third in the global smartphone market in 2018, just behind Apple, according to the research firm Strategy Analytics. Many governments, even those with close ties to Washington, remain unmoved by American warnings. Germany, for instance, is still open to Huawei even though Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to curtail intelligence-sharing with European allies which allow the use of the company’s equipment.

Barack Obama’s administration didn’t have much better luck. It tried to dissuade its allies from participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Beijing-sponsored multilateral lending institution, on the grounds that it might not uphold proper standards like the U.S.-led World Bank.That argument, too, swayed almost no one. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other usually reliable U.S. partners all became AIIB members.

Such setbacks don’t necessarily mean that the U.S. is “losing” to China. Many countries around the world remain wary of China’s growing ambitions, expanding military capabilities, unfair trade practices and ever-tightening domestic security state.  Though Germany is sending a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum—led by Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier—and defying Trump on Huawei, it hasn’t turned traitor. The German government has raised new hurdles on foreign investment, a move aimed at fending off undesirable Chinese acquisitions of German companies and technology.

All this makes for a very messy world. As Khanna pointed out, the economic bonds between China, Europe, and the rest of Asia have already been forged, and are not likely to be reversed. As a result, Washington’s attempt to contain China might prove self-defeating. “You can’t isolate China,” he told me. “The U.S. will end up isolating itself.”

No official from Washington will be attending Xi’s Belt and Road bash. Perhaps, though, the U.S. would have greater success influencing China’s actions on the world stage by whispering from the inside, rather than barking from the outside.