Driving all of the visions is the fact that the world’s infrastructure needs far exceed what any single country can provide. And those needs are only becoming more acute in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the world’s most ambitious vision for connectivity, but it is hardly the only vision that matters. Arguably the BRI’s biggest global contribution has been to elevate the importance of connectivity. It has alarmed its competitors by using infrastructure as a tool for influence. It has disappointed its partners by over-promising and under-delivering. While China learns from this experience and recalibrates the BRI, it is giving momentum to competing visions for connectivity that will deliver results during 2021 and the years to come.
China is being challenged even its own backyard. In Southeast Asia, Japan is the incumbent provider of infrastructure and has been outspending China in most markets. Japan’s emphasis on “quality infrastructure” has been expanded to the G7, the G20, and several bilateral efforts. China’s BRI has pushed Japan and Europe closer together, leading to their announcement of a “Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure” last year. This coming year should see the first projects from that effort.
India’s own historic connectivity shift is underway. For decades, areas near its borders with China were left intentionally disconnected. But in recent years, India’s decision to build strategic road and rail projects reflects a growing confidence and recognition of the challenge that China presents. The standoff in the Doklam plateau in 2017 and this year’s clashes in eastern Ladakh underscore the importance of completing these strategic projects. Looking beyond its borders, India remains the southern anchor of the North-South Transport Corridor. New Delhi’s work with Tokyo on the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor was a promising idea that should be reenergised in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Europe is still waking up. For several years, China made inroads into Central and Eastern Europe, using carrots to weaken EU positions on China and build client-style relations with countries that are candidates to join the EU. Momentum is now building to revise the EU’s 2018 “Connecting Europe and Asia” strategy, making it more geopolitically explicit and potentially expanding it to include Africa and Latin America. An encouraging sign is a recent EU Parliamentary resolution on EU-Asia connectivity, which takes stock of recent EU efforts and calls for the EU Commission to create a global connectivity strategy. Even more encouraging would be to add connectivity to the European Commission’s proposed “US-EU agenda for global change.”
The United States does not yet have its own vision, but that could change under the incoming Biden-Harris administration. President-elect Biden will inherit an expanded economic toolkit, including a functioning US Export-Import Bank and the US Development Finance Corporation. The incoming administration will need to decide whether to keep, cut, or improve the Blue Dot Network, which was announced a year ago by the United States, Japan, and Australia. Washington could expand the effort with European partners and stronger environmental standards. Or it could aim even higher and put forward its own vision for connectivity that covers not only infrastructure but also other dimensions such as digital trade and people-to-people ties.
There is plenty of demand for these efforts — and others — to advance in 2021 and beyond. South Korea’s New Southern Policy, for example, is also making headway. Driving all of these visions is the fact that the world’s infrastructure needs far exceed what any single country can provide. And those needs are only becoming more acute in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. With greater alignment among US partners and allies, and new leadership in Washington, these visions could become more complementary. For pushing its competitors closer together, and underscoring the geopolitical stakes of connectivity, China deserves credit.
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