“Building Back A Better World”: Can it challenge the BRI?

Introduction

Ever since taking over as President, Joe Biden has reiterated the need for the US and its allies to work together to check China’s economic rise by providing alternatives to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project as well as its burgeoning technology scene. During his State of the Union address in April 2021, the US President had said:

China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future

It would be pertinent to point out that 138 nations on five continents have signed various BRI cooperation agreements with China as of the end of 2020. (EU member states including Greece and Italy are also on board the BRI.) China has so far invested a whopping $690 billion in BRI-related projects in 100 countries.

G7 and the B3W

On June 12, 2021 the G7 unveiled the Building Back a Better World (BBBW/B3W), a brain child of the Biden Administration. The G7 leaders said that the B3W would be “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent.” During a conversation with Boris Johnson in March, the US President had discussed the need for an alternative to the BRI. A number of BRI related projects in developing countries in Asia and Africa have drawn criticism for lacking in transparency and not being economically sustainable, leading to debts which make countries dependent upon them or leads to a “Debt Trap (pdf).”

Debt trap has been defined as “a predatory system designed to ensnare countries into a straightjacket of debt servitude.” A prominent example of this is Sri Lanka, where when the South Asian nation’s debt burden vis-à-vis China became untenable, it was compelled to sign a 99-year lease with China through which Beijing got 70% stake in the strategic port of Hambantota. Many projects falling under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), too, have been under the cloud for lacking transparency and not being feasible. In certain cases, such as the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, Beijing has had to renegotiate the cost of projects (it was brought down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion) as a result of strong local opposition.

Alternatives to BRI

The Trump Administration received bi-partisan support for the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development ) Act, which created a new agency (the United States International Development and Financial Corporation, or USIDFC) with a corpus of $60 billion to facilitate private sector involvement in the Indo-Pacific, especially African countries. In 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also made a commitment of $113 million to projects in the Indo-Pacific focused on technology, infrastructure, and energy. In November 2019, the US, Japan, and Australia had also launched the Blue Dot Network on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.

Then-US National Security Advisor Robert O Brien had compared the Blue Dot Network to Michelin Guide, which meant that just like a Michelin star is the sign of approval for a restaurant, a blue dot would be a seal of approval for infrastructural projects. Days before the G7 meeting, the inaugural meeting of the consultation group of the Blue Dot Network was held in Paris, apart from representatives from Western governments and Japan, other stakeholders such as members of civil society, academics, and 150 global executives participated in this meeting.

The US State Department, while commenting on the Blue Dot Network, had said:

The Blue Dot Network will be a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent and sustainable infrastructure projects

Under the umbrella of Quad countries (US, Japan, Australia, and India), too, there has been discussion on enhancing economic cooperation as well as connectivity.

Opportunities for the B3W

There is an opportunity for the B3W, since in the aftermath of Covid, certain BRI projects have slowed down. Second, the geographical scope of BBBW is much wider than that of the projects under the Indo-Pacific (B3W will also include Latin America and Caribbean). BBBW can also hardsell its strengths such as transparency and sustainability – both economic and environmental. It also can dovetail with some of Biden’s ambitious economic schemes related to the economy and infrastructure. The fact that Biden is willing to take the lead, unlike Trump, is reassuring for allies and sends out a positive message to developing countries looking for alternatives to the BRI. While addressing a press conference after G7, the US President made this point:

The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries, and America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values

The US had also categorically clarified that the B3W seeks to provide an alternative to BRI, but it is not merely about targeting China.

Possible limitations of B3W

Yet, there are limitations. First, the B3W still does not have a clear blue print. Second, it would be tough to match the BRI in terms of resources. Third, a number of G7 members who themselves share good relations with China may be reluctant to get on board the initiative (even though it has been made clear that the B3W initiative is not just about targeting China).

Conclusion

In conclusion, a lot will depend upon how much not just the US government and big businesses are willing to invest in the B3W (since the model will be different from the BRI, which is one of ‘state capitalism’) but whether other members of the G7 are willing to play a proactive role in such a project. An alternative is needed to the BRI and the announcement of B3W is welcome. Taking it forward and competing with BRI may not be impossible but is certainly a tough task.

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