The U.S. has a new strategy for dealing with China’s investments: Help countries negotiate better deals. That’s what we should be doing.
Since China launched its Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S. has struggled to find a coherent response. On its face, Beijing’s plan to support infrastructure projects around the world isn’t a problem. Developing countries stand to benefit from the funding, better trade links pave the way for more efficient trade, and opening new markets brings material benefits.
But as the U.S. has warned in recent years, Beijing’s money comes with political strings attached and is often against the interests of the countries taking it. Indeed, recent Belt and Road projects have raised concerns about potential debt traps for China’s supposed partners and economic benefits that help Chinese firms rather than local communities and governments.
Finally, the U.S. seems to have figured out a good way to navigate these issues. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. has recently started a pilot program that sends negotiators to help countries interested in China’s money work out better deals. Those negotiators flag potential pitfalls, help officials think through potential benefits and shortcomings, and appreciate the long-term effects of projects.
The result is not that Washington has to directly compete with China’s deals or tell countries to flat-out reject offers that may bring economic benefits. Instead, the U.S. can quietly help governments make sure that the deals they are agreeing to are in fact going benefit their country.
This is probably a cost-effective solution to combating the coercive elements of China’s growing influence that also enables Washington to maintain strong relationships with leaders around the world. It’s also good for the countries involved: Instead of simply taking whatever deal Beijing offers, they are empowered to play hardball and reap real rewards.
In the end, such a strategy might even be good for China too, ultimately creating more stable trading partners and more profitable markets. That, to borrow a phrase from China’s official rhetoric, would truly be win-win cooperation.