It’s Time for the United States to Join the New Silk Road

August 31, 2021

For Americans, participating in the New Silk Road should not be seen as a defeat or loss of standing in the international order but rather as a chance to lead in bettering the world.
Bridge in Hong Kong and Container Cargo freight ship. Photo via Getty Images.

When you’ve been punched in the face, it’s a good idea to gather your wits before returning to the fray. Still dazed from the Afghan war, the Biden team is already speeding toward even more dangerous confrontations in multiple directions—this time, with China in their sights instead of the older jihadist foes. American strategists are focusing on bigger targets across a wide arch of distant lands and waters—South and Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific. As Washington struggles to regain its footing, we should try to point its leaders toward a better path—one leading to global development and cooperation instead of endless brinkmanship and more pointless wars. The name of that path is the New Silk Road.

The New Silk Road is an audacious vision that might have originated in the United States. Its spirit is American to the core: a transcontinental and transoceanic venture, marshalling the energies and resources of billions of people around the world in an astonishing effort to unite societies and markets in a single human community. Breathtaking. Foolhardy. Utopian. Exactly—that’s why it’s American to the core.

So, to our shell-shocked comrades in Washington: Pause a while, open your well-trained minds to a bit of brainstorming that can advance fundamental American dreams that, today, are universal yearnings and help turn them into concrete achievements. Join the New Silk Road, share in the credit of leading the greatest humanitarian enterprise of our time, and take your turn in steering it in the best possible direction.

Follow our European and Asian allies in making the New Silk Road a broader partnership that embraces international standards of human rights, environmental protection, and transparency. Present the developing countries of the global South with a stunning array of world-class technology and finance that transcends ideology and Great Power politics.

In other words, work to improve China’s Belt and Road Initiative instead of trying to subvert it, duplicate it or ignore it. The venture has gained too much momentum to be stopped and a competing effort won’t muster adequate resources, either economic or political. Forget about trying to mount a hostile takeover. Buy into an ongoing concern that has a promising future, but is still malleable enough to serve collective interests instead of the imperial ambitions of the Beijing bureaucrats who launched it.

Work to improve China’s Belt and Road Initiative instead of trying to subvert it.

The Chinese may have originated the project, but they don’t own it. In fact, the faster it spreads the more it defies their control and spawns demands for wider participation in decision-making—not just from other governments and international bankers, but from ordinary citizens and civil society groups around the world. Many of China’s showcase projects have been stymied or revamped in the face of well-organized protests from myriad local groups—tribes in Pakistan, fishermen in Indonesia, miners in Zambia, farmers in Myanmar, urban youth in Nigeria, shopkeepers in Iran, engineers in Mexico, and many others.

News of these clashes inevitably circle back to the Chinese public, prompting more and more people to ask why their leaders are willing to engage and compromise with foreigners while turning a deaf ear to similar grievances from their own citizens. Party leaders fear the ripple effects of the New Silk Road on Chinese society, knowing they cannot transform the rest of the world without disrupting China itself in the process.

Hence, the blatant contradiction between Beijing’s openness to other nations and its greater repression at home. Even members of the Communist Party—including the new ranks of hand-picked youth—have been put on notice that they are forbidden to gather in groups of three or more without prior, official approval from senior levels.

The New Silk Road won’t become an exclusive Chinese sphere of interest; nor is it destined to descend into a Sino-American battlefield.

China needs help with the New Silk Road. The venture’s very achievements are pushing it further and further beyond Beijing’s control. The New Silk Road won’t become an exclusive Chinese sphere of interest; nor is it destined to descend into a Sino-American battlefield. With the right blend of statecraft and good fortune, it might even blossom into part of the global commons—the property of none and the responsibility of all, a collective heritage of mankind held in trust for future generations who will safeguard it as well as they hopefully will treasure the planet and the heavens.

Since the project’s inception, Beijing has insisted that the New Silk Road is open to every country that wants to participate. The United States should hold China to that pledge and encourage America’s friends to do the same. This would be a welcome about-face from years of futile efforts by presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden to discourage European and Asian countries from partnering with the multinational banks and consortiums that have sprung up to support New Silk Road projects. Washington’s blocking tactics have failed; it’s time to follow in the path of the many allies who took their own counsel and left America on the sidelines.

If the United States wants to display a new willingness to collaborate with neighbors and adversaries alike, there is one enterprise with a potential impact—both symbolic and practical—that supersedes all others. Chinese engineers are drawing up plans for a high-speed rail corridor connecting the entire coastal rim of the north Pacific.

The proposed route starts in northeast China, passing along the shores of Siberia into Alaska and, then, down the west coast of Canada and the U.S. all the way to California. The most spectacular feature is a possible tunnel across the Bering Strait—a fifty-mile underwater link, nearly twice the length of the Channel Tunnel between England and France.

VIDEO: What is the Belt and Road initiative?

Many Siberia-Alaska ventures have been floated since the nineteenth century, usually dismissed as fantasies worthy of Jules Verne or Ferdinand de Lesseps. Today, however, there is greater interest than ever. Trans-Arctic shipping is gradually emerging as a realistic shortcut between Pacific and Atlantic ports. Air travel is falling in favor because of rising cost and alarm over pollution. High speed trains are commonplace and an inter-hemispheric railway is just one of several megaprojects competing for attention and financing on every continent.

Many nations have concrete reasons to be cautious in joining the New Silk Road—particularly concerns over debt service, human rights, labor practices, and the environment.  However, for the United States, the chief hang-up is psychological and ideological. How can Americans feel they are still number one in the world if they have to rub shoulders with so many other chefs in the same kitchen? Wouldn’t it be admitting defeat to sign up for an enterprise they didn’t start and can never dominate?

Self-doubt should not stand in the way. Americans know perfectly well how to use their power to advance the greater good. They’ve demonstrated that many times before and they are more than equal to the task of showing it again in even more convincing ways. By combining their talents with those of others, they can multiply that force and aim it at higher goals and more inspiring ideals.

Westerners who have lived in Pacific Asian countries and absorbed their daily rhythms feel the pervasive electricity in every nerve. The sense of optimism and confidence in the future is something they internalize and learn to take for granted—until they return to the United States and Europe where they’re quickly jolted by the seemingly unnatural rust, gloom, and obesity that creeped ahead in their absence.

For Americans, participating in the New Silk Road should not be seen as a defeat or loss of standing in the international order but rather as a chance to lead in bettering the world. The task of managing the New Silk Road should not be left to a single society. By encouraging partnerships instead of hierarchies, the developed and developing countries can share both benefits and burdens more equitably and, we hope, more peacefully.

Robert R. Bianchi is a political scientist and international lawyer with special interests in the Islamic world and China. He has held professorships at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, the American University in Cairo, Qatar University, the Johns-Hopkins Nanjing Center, the National University of Singapore, and the Shanghai International Studies University. He is the author of five books including China and the Islamic World: How the New Silk Road is Transforming Global Politics (Oxford University Press, 2019).