The Australian Financial Review reported on Sunday that Australia, India, Japan, and the United States are considering an alliance to counter China’s growing influence—in particular, the huge “Belt and Road” trade project undertaken by China.
China’s project, variously known as “One Belt, One Road” and the “New Silk Road,” aims to recreate the legendary trade route across the Near and Far East that endured until the 15th century. The project is a source of enormous influence for China because it involves spending vast sums of money on infrastructure, offering loans to smaller nations along the route, and promising great economic benefits.
Information traffic is a major element of the 21st century incarnation of the Silk Road as well, which raises concerns about both Chinese ideological influence and Chinese censorship of the Internet.
CNBC conveys the scope of the Belt and Road enterprise by noting it could include up to 65 countries which collectively comprise a third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and include 60 percent of its population.
The first stirrings of a countervailing plan from the West included America’s quest for closer security and economic ties with India, along with U.S. proposals for closer security coordination with Japan and Australia. The four nations came together for talks at the ASEAN and East Asia summits in November.
According to the Australian Financial Review’s sources, those talks have progressed over the past few months, but the group is not quite ready to make a formal announcement when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits Washington this week.
The Japan Times notes that Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed in an interview on Monday that the four nations are discussing a joint infrastructure plan, citing the “enormous need for infrastructure in the region.”
However, both Bishop and the unnamed U.S. official who was the primary source for the Australian Financial Review piece stressed that the four-nation plan was an “alternative” to China’s Belt and Road, not a “rival.”
Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the exact same thing in a Tokyo press conference on Monday, insisting, “It’s not the case that this is in opposition to China’s One Belt, One Road plan,” so it is clearly a major talking point for at least 75 percent the nascent four-nation alliance. Japan has already drafted plans for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” that could be folded into the four-nation strategy.
India has been more vocally opposed to Belt and Road than the others and was delighted when U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis proclaimed in October that China has no business dictating belts or roads to anyone.
The difference between rivalry and “alternatives” might seem like a fine distinction, but the American official explained that the U.S.-Australia-Japan-India project (which will hopefully be given a snappy name to compete with the excellent public relations work Beijing has done for Belt and Road) is not aiming to put China’s project out of business, as would be the case in a rivalry. In fact, the official portrayed the new project as potentially cooperative with China’s initiative, as in the case of a Chinese-built port that might not become profitable until the American partnership plugs into it.
Bloomberg Politics sees the plan as a way for U.S. President Donald Trump to reconcile his stated desire to counter Chinese and Russian influence, as laid out in his National Security Strategy document, with his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Trump has generally expressed a preference for bilateral and small-group negotiations over sweeping multilateral trade agreements.
Security studies Professor Bates Gill of Macquarie University in Sydney speculated that the program Trump and Turnbull will discuss this week is an endeavor to reframe the four-nation security alliance in “economic and infrastructure terms” so it appears “less confrontation toward China.”
(The name commonly given to that security agreement is the “Quad,” which simply will not work as an appealing brand name for a huge international trade route project, pursuant to the point about marketing made above.)
“It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration is prepared to do the diplomatic heavy lifting that would be necessary for such a partnership to work,” Gill told Bloomberg Politics.
Whatever the Quad nations decide to offer as an alternative, they have about five years of catching up to do, as Belt and Road was officially discussed by Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time in 2013, and was incubating for a while before that. Beijing established an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2016 to finance the plan. The bank has already approved funding for 24 infrastructure projects.
The plan has actually been written into China’s constitution, with $124 billion in investment behind it. It has grown so much in scope since inception that China recently began talking about running part of the New Silk Road through the North Pole.
Even with that headstart, the South China Morning Post quotes Professor Pang Zhongying of the Ocean University of China warning that the U.S. and its quadrilateral partnership should not be underestimated.
“Five years on, it is time for China to check and rethink the gains and losses of the projects. It should change course to promote the initiative, obeying global rules and market forces,” he advised.
“China needs to rethink the approach of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. There is too much focus on political considerations rather than economic considerations and it is unsustainable,” added Jia Qingguo, professor of international relations at Peking University. “Whether the Indo-Pacific succeeds in curtailing China depends on us. Beijing needs to do its homework and do more to manage relations with countries in the Indo-Pacific region.”
It is notable that both of these comments from Chinese analysts mention international relations, global rules, and market forces. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel also talked about making sure China lives up to international rules, suggesting that planners both inside and outside of China see some vulnerabilities in Beijing’s massive project that could be exploited by the U.S. and its allies.