In an earlier post, I wrote briefly about public opinion in the developing world towards China’s Belt and Road initiative. Much more remains to be said, and I’m going through the literature carefully to summarize what we know. Eventually, my company, Azimuth Social Research, will write a report with our colleagues at OnGlobalLeadership, a consulting and thought leadership firm specializing in China. 

For the moment, I want to talk about US expert opinion towards China’s massive infrastructural investment in low-and-middle-income countries, as well as the US government’s nascent response. 

US Experts’ Ambivalence

Although there is plenty of public opinion data from Pew and others on the American public’s attitudes towards China in general, I have yet to find substantial data on US public attitudes towards the Belt and Road Initiative in particular. I’m still looking, but there doesn’t seem to be much. And if my own social and professional circles are anything to go by, most Americans have never even heard of BRI, making it hard to ask for their views. People in this country know that China is on the move economically but think mostly about its investments in the US and Europe, rather than in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. 

The US foreign policy community is a different beast, of course, as it is both socialized and paid to have well-formed opinions about this kind of thing. In 2016, a report by the Institute for China-America Studies “on the attitudes of strategic studies and international political economy experts” towards the Belt and Road Initiative suggested that “the overall response [of these experts] to BRI” was at that time rather ambivalent. On the one hand, experts were concerned with the standards (safety, environmental, and more) of Chinese projects, the nature of Chinese development practices, the erosion of Western development norms, and the lack of transparency surrounding the economic terms of BRI projects. They were also worried about the BRI’s geopolitical implications. On the other hand, most experts recognized the need for major infrastructural investments in low-and-middle-income countries. Indeed, US expert opinions differed so much, and were often so ambivalent, that they appeared to agree only on one thing: that Belt and Road Initiative investments would have substantial economic impacts on recipient countries. 

In the four years since the report’s publication—and in the seven years since Chinese President Xi Jinping first launched Belt and Road— US experts have likely grown more critical. Many experts in Washington-based think tanks and political circles now fall in the pessimistic camp, which the 2016 report described as the belief that the Belt and Road Initiative is “a deliberate attempt [by China] to economically marginalize the United States, to create a Eurasian sphere of influence, or … a pretext for expanding China’s overseas military presence.” This pessimism likely stems from US political developments, which have titled in an anti-China direction, and the fundamental lack of Chinese transparency on the terms, intentions, and results of BRI projects. 

It’s difficult to know what Americans will think about Belt and Road in the months and years to come. Much depends on the upcoming presidential election. President Trump has been loudly opposed to China’s growing influence, but a new administration may try a different tack. The long-term effects of COVID-19 on world and US markets also matters, but those remain unclear. China’s own statements and policies, of course, will matter greatly. The more Chinese business and investment sources are transparent about the terms of BRI projects, the less outside observers will worry about their “real” intentions. 

A US-Led Counter-Response: The “Blue Dot” Initiative

In the meantime, the US government, along with those of Japan and Australia, has translated its concern into policy by initiating the Blue Dot project, the existence of which was first announced in November 2019. Although little is yet known about the effort, it appears to be a plan aimed at ranking infrastructure projects in the developing world by their conformance to Western building standards, respect for the environment, and more. By certifying that a given project is of sufficiently high quality, the US, Japanese and Australian governments hope to encourage non-Chinese investors to begin matching China’s massive investments in the developing world. The impacts of this US-led initiative remain unclear, however, as it is still early days. COVID-19 has surely slowed the project down, as it has China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In future posts, I’ll continue the hunt for reliable polling data on public opinion in the US and elsewhere towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative.