(Re)-building U.S. alliances and ramping up infrastructure spending at home and abroad is critical to strategically countering the political and economic rise of China, a panel of U.S. diplomats and scholars told members of the Council of Foreign Relations at an event on Wednesday.

Headlining the event was Robert D. Blackwill, former U.S. Ambassador to India, and currently the Council’s Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy. Blackwill has just released “Implementing Grand Strategy Toward China,” a 22-point policy prescription plan for dealing with China in coming decades, which framed the discussion.

Domestic initiatives top Blackwill’s list of recommendations. These include modernization of basic U.S. infrastructure; immigration system reform; reductions in entitlement spending; efforts to rehabilitate the structure and quality of the U.S. education system; and steps to address the “serious political, economic and societal divisions within the country.”

Allies: Remember Us?

Blackwill told attendees that while the strategic stakes of U.S. policy on China are mounting—world order, he said, “cannot be stabilized for the period ahead” with the two countries in perpetual confrontation—diplomatic efforts have been strikingly absent, and all U.S. alliance systems are weaker today than when the Trump administration took office.

In addition to promoting U.S. national interests and values, Blackwill said stronger alliances would incentivize China to improve its behavior internationally.

“The United States, in my judgment, cannot compete with China over the long term by itself,” he said. “We need, in order to balance the rise of Chinese power, allies and partners in Asia and in the world. Strengthening the alliance system in all its economic, diplomatic, and military dimensions…should be a major priority to the United States.”

He was seconded by fellow panelist J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. Ambassador to China and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Roy further cited two policy-relevant characteristics of the U.S.-China relationship.

First among these, he said, is that U.S. allies in East Asia conduct more trade with China than with the U.S., so that a strict policy of China containment would fail to align U.S. interests with those of our regional allies.

Ambassador Roy noted secondly that while China overtly aspires to replace the United States as the primary power in East Asia, none of its neighbors shares that vision. An explicit preference for continued U.S. involvement in the region should be honored in order to maintain these alliances.

BRI: Mismanaged, But Not Going Away

Panelists also addressed China’s strategic use of infrastructure funding through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a means of building global influence.

As a counterbalance, they said, the U.S. should offer countries a viable alternative to BRI through the United States International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC).

Other global infrastructure projects could be pursued collaboratively with China, via multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Panelist Jamie P. Horsley, Visiting Lecturer in Law and Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, acknowledged BRI as a masterstroke of strategy for China, but conceded there are problems. Lack of alignment with global standards of transparency and sustainability, charges of financial coercion, and blowback from recipient countries are well-known criticisms. Basic organizational problems are also at work.

Per Professor Horsley, BRI is “not an organized, top-down project,” but rather, one in which projects are developed ad hoc by Chinese companies operating abroad, or folded into pre-existing investments.

Despite intense international scrutiny and pushback from recipient countries, given the reputational risks for China, Horsley says “BRI is not going to go away.” Instead, it will likely be recalibrated to suggest a good-faith effort to implement higher standards. As a result, the world may see the emergence of “green BRI” or “sustainable BRI” projects coming from China.

In his 22-point strategic plan, Ambassador Blackwill also favors further leveraging IDFC: “[Congress] should give the IDFC the freedom to quickly take advantage of opportunities when countries waver at the prospect of Chinese funding, and give the IDFC political support to fund riskier investments,” he wrote. “It should also support organizations like Radio Free Asia to spotlight disturbing Chinese investment in the [East Asian] region. Additionally, Congress and the Trump administration should work together to properly fund and equip the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to address national security concerns regarding Chinese investments.”

This is it, folks

Without action, the stakes over the coming decades will be ominous for the U.S. and its Free World allies.

“This is the biggest challenge the United States is going to face in our lifetimes…even the youngest people in the room,” Ambassador Blackwill said, nonetheless urging attendees not to succumb to “defeatism.”

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