I am always interested in news stories about China’s decades long mission, on an international scale, to construct infrastructure so to propel investment, trade, and thereby secure political clout. The ‘Belt and Road’ plan which was announced in 2013 is nothing short of daunting, but also brilliant. It should also be the impetus to spur American leadership in an outward direction rather than a withdrawal from international responsibility.
This weekend an article made the newspaper about the latest efforts by China, and the nervousness it is creating in Washington. That sense of alarm can be a useful tool if it churns up national efforts to again engage with the world as partners and meaningful allies. As an internationalist, let me state up front, what has happened to our relationships concerning a long list of nations, along with our drawing back on our obligations around the globe, is most unsettling.
China’s expansion in Latin America of its Belt and Road initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities is stirring alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions in a region that American leaders since the 19th century have seen as off-limits to other powers.
China is hardly a newcomer to the region, but now it’s focusing on countries in Central America such as Panama. It’s a country of just 4 million people, but its canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans makes it one of the world’s busiest trade arteries and strategically important both to Washington and Beijing.
What confronts many in Washington, on both sides of the aisle and at times for the same reasons, is that our foreign policy has overplayed its hand with too high of a cost. One can make sound arguments about why that is true, such as the case with the Iraq War, when hubris preceded rational policy making. But when it comes to the pivot of policy making towards Asia over the past decade there can be no case made other than it was not only calculated, but necessary.
What started for China as a two-pronged plan to reshape and modernize both the ‘Silk Road’ and also the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is now just the well-known initiative reporters term as the ‘Belt and Road’. China knows their place in the world, and with their culture embedded in their governing style, and history making the case, the goals set for these massive construction projects will move forward. Even with a Chinese economy that has slowed, and faces headwinds due to the current trade war. With Chinese skill at playing the long game they know time is on their side.
New markets for their consumer goods is pressing China forward. But what forces are being exerted in the United States to counter this infusion of capital and manpower? What ideas and new approaches is the West taking to counter Chinese movements?
There was movement during the Obama Administration regarding a $10 billion gas pipeline through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It also spent billions of dollars on roads and energy projects in Afghanistan and used its diplomatic muscle to help craft new regional cooperation frameworks to foster Central Asian economic links. Trump has turned to bombast and heavy-handed tactics which have hurt our interests. The rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement CP strongly supported, was the first damaging move by this White House in the region.
And so the news articles point out this weekend the shortsightedness of our policy makers in Washington as China pushes forward with bulldozers, money, and finesse.
President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are not helping the U.S. cause in the region, said businessman Roberto Eisenmann, founder of Panama’s most influential newspaper, La Prensa.
Trump has yet to name a replacement for U.S. Ambassador John Feeley, who announced his retirement in January 2018.
“They are leaving a vacuum of leadership that obviously the Chinese are trying to fill,” said Eisenmann.