- The U.S. Response to the Belt and Road Initiative:Answering New Threats with New Partnerships
The United States has embraced a policy of "strategic competition" with China.1 This competition is most acute in East Asia, where Chinese policies directly challenge the United States' long-standing strategic primacy. China has primed its rapid military modernization to disrupt and deter U.S. forces and has used coercive force to assert territorial revisionism in the South China Sea. But the competition spans multiple regions and dimensions. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to build Chinese influence across the entire Eurasian landmass and adjacent waters, often at a cost to U.S. interests. Washington has denounced BRI as a "predatory" program that builds influence through corrupt and secretive "debt trap" deals.2 But alongside its economic edifice, BRI is also freighted with strategic implications. The new trade and infrastructure deals will increase Chinese leverage to shape partner nations' preferences, edge out U.S. influence, and expand Chinese military presence.3
South Asia illustrates these political-military dimensions of BRI. China is cultivating an increasingly dependent ally in Pakistan and building a sprawling military presence across the Indian Ocean region, while India and its partners scramble to mount a counterbalance. This essay outlines the implications of these dynamics for U.S. policy. It shows, first, how BRI in South Asia threatens U.S. strategic interests and how the United States is responding through new partnerships with India and other countries. The essay concludes by discussing some recommended principles for the future of U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific. [End Page 34]
How BRI Threatens U.S. Strategic Interests
On the surface, BRI offers tangible and immediate economic benefits for regions like South Asia. The region's developing states have a desperate demand for the speedily constructed transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure that BRI promises. The terms and modalities of BRI projects have generated skepticism and opposition, which may prompt China to adjust its approach in its decades-long BRI campaign. More fundamentally, the concept of BRI—and its South Asian centerpiece, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—presents a broad threat to U.S. interests in at least three ways.
First and most directly, BRI shields governments that harbor anti-U.S. interests and entrenches their inimical policies. The clearest example of this is Pakistan. The United States and Pakistan have long endured a relationship that oscillates between amity and estrangement. After years of mounting frustration over Pakistan's support for terrorist networks, Washington ultimately cut most aid in 2018.4 CPEC, however, was there to cushion the blow. With a source of lavish financial patronage, Pakistan is now free to persist with its strategy of using militant proxy groups for influence in Afghanistan and attacks against India. Not only is China more tolerant of Pakistan's destabilizing policies; it actively shields Pakistan from external pressure—most prominently, by repeatedly blocking UN action against terrorists such as Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad, who claims sanctuary in Pakistan.5
China's patronage of Pakistan, with CPEC at its center, has also contributed to sharpening strategic alignments in the region. Pakistan is now financially beholden to China and firmly within its orbit. Even if the United States were to resume military aid to Pakistan, which is unlikely in the short term, the entrenched presence of CPEC means that Washington would struggle to recover even the minor influence it previously held. The United States, which has simultaneously made clear its support for India, can no longer serve as a credible intermediary in the perennial security crises between India and Pakistan. In February 2019, as India considered its response to the terrorist attack in Pulwama, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton deviated from decades of U.S. practice and encouraged [End Page 35] the Indian military's retaliation at Balakot.6 With greatly diminished external brakes on escalation, India and Pakistan were able to introduce unprecedented levels of risk to the crisis.7
Through BRI, China has and will continue to also shape the political trajectories of other states in the region. The examples of Mahinda Rajapaksa...