US criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative only places it at a disadvantage

By Xiao Xin Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/23 20:18:40

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

A continuation of the international fault-finding mind-set toward the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will only put the US at a disadvantage as the initiative has grown in importance in the global economic landscape, which has been threatened by protectionism. 

A decisive shift is thus needed on the part of the US toward a critical-thinking mind-set that will forge a genuine consensus on global inclusive growth. 

The US is apparently continuing its walk down a dark alley of unilateralism and protectionism, not only opting to disconnect itself from a growing BRI community, but also sparing no effort to dissuade other countries from joining the initiative.  

The Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, to be held later this month in Beijing, has obviously aroused interest around the world. 

Representatives from over 100 countries, including about 40 foreign leaders, have confirmed their attendance at the forum, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, told a media briefing in late March, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

The US, nonetheless, has chosen to distance itself from the grand gathering. A US State Department spokesman said earlier in April that Washington won't send high-level officials to the summit, citing "concerns about opaque financing practices, poor governance, and disregard for internationally accepted norms and standards," Reuters reported. 

A lower-level staff member from the US embassy might be sent to observe and take notes on the summit, according to the Reuters report. 

This certainly indicates a step back. The US sent a delegation by White House Asia adviser Matthew Pottinger to the first summit in 2017. 

More worryingly, the world's largest economy, also perhaps the world's top advocate of protectionism, is increasingly behaving like a BRI obstructer.

A spokesperson for the White House's group of national security advisers said in March - before Italy signed up for the BRI later that month - that Italy should avoid the initiative.  

While the suggestion proved futile in the end, the US appears to have played a part in the scaling-back in investment in the China-funded Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port project on the coast of Bay of Bengal.

After years of negotiations, China and Myanmar signed the port deal in November 2018, after the Chinese side agreed to cut its stake to 70 percent of the port from 85 percent.

A Wall Street Journal article earlier this month revealed, however, that "a team of US economists, diplomats and lawyers had been dispatched to the country on a pilot program to scrutinize contracts and flag bad deals," helping Myanmar push back on the port deal.

The US Agency for International Development took the lead in the program, which may become a regular US strategy to counter China's BRI influence, the report said.

As such, US efforts to scrutinize the port deal, in which the US had no stake, was not intended to truly help Myanmar. By picking on China and taking advantage of Myanmar, the US intends to establish itself as an "objective" BRI advisor. Nevertheless, the US, reluctant to extend its own aid and funding, will most likely end up being seen as a hypocrite - a further blow to its global reputation.

In so doing, the US is also unwisely disconnecting itself from a ton of BRI-enabled growth opportunities.

The initiative will add $117 billion to global trade in 2019, boosting global trade by 0.3 percentage point and global economic growth by 0.1 percentage point, according to research results from French trade credit insurer Euler Hermes.  

Also worth noting is that apart from signing a BRI accord, countries including Japan and France have participated in the initiative through exploring third-party market cooperation with China. The push for third-party market cooperation surely helps in enabling shared growth under the BRI. 

That said, instead of unfairly nitpicking BRI projects, the US ought to rethink how it might tap into BRI opportunities. It could start by cooperating with China on third-party markets along the BRI routes. 

China, for its part, also needs to continue efforts to improve the viability and sustainability of its financing practices in order to build greater cohesion within the BRI community and increased appeal of the initiative for those yet to be part of it.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.


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