Thwarting the strategic rebalancing: the Belt and Road Initiative

The deployment of more American forward-deployed forces so far has not deterred China from its expansionist moves. From China’s perspective, this course of action is worth taking since the US is not willing to risk war despite the growing Chinese strategic challenge to the US Seventh Fleet and American allies. Territorial expansion is vital to China's interests—even to the extent of its use of force. For the US, the credibility of its defense commitments to its allies is important but not necessarily crucial since Chinese aggression does not directly threaten American interests. Though building up its forces in East Asia, the US has not convinced China that it is serious in waging a war with determined Chinese leaders who seem bent on chasing their strategic goal of maritime expansion. China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is based on its assessment of its growing military capacity, along with a strong conviction among its key decision-makers that the US will not use its hard power to counter Chinese actions.38 This stems from the fact that China is one of America’s most important trading partners. In the past two decades, the US and China have established deeply rooted economic interdependence because of trade and investment. Applying an outright deterrence strategy on China became extremely difficult for the Obama administration. An American academic observed:

The high level of bilateral economic interdependence will complicate the decision-making calculus in Washington in the event that the People’s Liberation Army threatens the security or sovereignty of an American ally or strategic partner in East Asia. Washington’s motivation to come to the defense of a threatened ally or partner will be attenuated to the degree that the prospective intervention places the health of the U.S. economy in serious jeopardy.39

More significantly, as the world’s traditional and leading practitioner of economic statecraft or geo-economics, China used its massive wealth to advance its geopolitical goal of outflanking the Obama administration's rebalancing strategy to Asia.40 China’s rapid economic growth and massive foreign exchange reserves have enabled it to reshape regional trade and investment patterns, and to influence geostrategic developments in East Asia. China relies on its economic power as assurance measures and inducements to neighboring states to cooperate with it, but also resorts to coercive economic measures like trade sanctions to punish countries opposing its policies.41 Confronted by the growing

American naval presence in the Western Pacific, China persists on its maritime expansion by outmaneuvering the US rebalancing policy in the Asia-Pacific region through its huge foreign aid disbursements and several infrastructure projects under the BRI umbrella.

The BRI involves the building of comprehensive connectivity of geographical regions through various forms infrastructure, such as roads, railways, and ports as well as communications and energy projects.42 It aims to connect certain countries via these planned roadways: (1) a route stretching from Central Asia west through Russia to the Baltic; (2) a historical route starting from Central Asia turning towards Western Asia, passing through the Persian Gulf on its way to the Mediterranean Ocean; and (3) a route that passes through Southern China into Southeast Asia then leads through South Asia into the Indian Ocean.43

To realize the BRI’s goal of greater connectivity. President Xi promised the following: (1) China will provide more international public goods to its Asian neighbors; (2) economic cooperation will be extended to both land and maritime projects; (3) cooperation will be promoted in all infrastructure development undertakings; and (4) China will commit $40 billion to establish a Silk Road Fund.44

The BRI is a double-edged geopolitical sword. One the one hand, it expands China’s influence into the Eurasian sub-continent away from the Pacific. On the other hand, it projects Chinese influence into the east to become China's twenty-first century Marshall Plan to thwart the US rebalancing to the Western Pacific.45 Additionally, it serves as an effective wedge that China can drive between or within countries that it sees as having impact on its core interests such as Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea. Alternatively, the BRI is used against any coalition of states that challenges its expansionist agenda in East Asia. More significantly, it strengthens China’s hand in undermining existing military alliances and the current regional order while empowering it to create new power relationships and arrangements that exclude the US. Apropos the South China Sea dispute, the BRI has enabled China to develop and extend its influence in the disputant countries. As a case in point, China was able to develop and exert its influence on Philippine domestic politics in 2016, to sway the country away from the US, and to alter its balancing policy on China’s expansionist agenda in the South China Sea.

 
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