Last week, the leaders of the so-called world’s big economies; Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States met in Cornwall, England where the U.S president Joe Biden announced the ambitious project dubbed “build back better for the world” (B3W.) Shortly after this, officials in Washington explained Biden’s B3W is all about a “ bold, new global infrastructure initiative with our G7 partners that will be values-driven, transparent and sustainable.”
No matter diplomatic and nice words the Biden administration use to sell B3W and the claim that the initiative is meant to bridge infrastructure funding gap especially in developing countries, closer analysis shows this is nothing but a cobweb of politics and an effort to counter China’s belt and road initiative (BRI) which Washington claims Beijing is using to grow China’s global influence.
But, can Biden’s B3W Work? Can it answer the growing infrastructure funding gaps especially in developing countries or it is just politics at play?
Explaining why he proposed B3E, president Biden told the journalists; “The point is that what’s happening is that China has this Belt and Road Initiative, and we think that there’s a much more equitable way to provide for the needs of countries around the world. And so it’s been — it’s a values-driven,… And we believe that will not only be good for the countries, but it’ll be good for the entire world and represent values that our democracies represent, and not autocratic lack of values.”
From the above statement, it is clear Biden’s B3W is meant to provide counterweight to China’s BRI which so far has infrastructure projects in over 126 countries, a development the U.S sees as opportunity for China to expand influence.
Further analysis of Biden’s statement is that, the logic often guiding the superpowers while addressing what they call global challenges is nothing but logic of power. It has never been about human rights and democracy or sovereignty and international laws and norms but just power. This is the common denominator, be the so-called democrats or authoritarian regimes. Put differently, U.S is not just about the promoting their so-called values or helping to bridge infrastructure funding gaps in developing countries but rather are worried of the over 126 countries and 26 international organizations that signed up for China’s BRI with many already benefiting. Washington thinks her influence in those countries will dimmish and hence, their global hegemony. This is what International Relations Professor and a Realist, John Mearsheimer calls the tragedy of Great Power politics!
Of course, it is very clear that Biden’s B3W is meant to rival China, which is the last thing the world especially developing world need now as they struggle to bridge infrastructure funding gaps. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, between 2016 and 2030, the world needs $95 trillion which accounts to $6.3 trillion annually a figure that is too high to achieve that no well-meaning world leader would slander another country working to realise this goal.
According to African Development Bank (ADB), to meet their infrastructure needs that can allow them sustain their growing population, growing of their economies, and replacing ageing infrastructure, African countries have to spend between $130 – $170 billion annually, yet currently, half of that is unfunded despite heavy investments from China’s BRI to several African countries.
On the other hand, Refinitiv – a research group put funding gaps for infrastructure development at $15 trillion for the year 2020-2040. The same research group underscores China’s role in bridging infrastructural funding. According to their 2019 study, since president Xi Jinping launched Belt and Road initiative, over 2,600 projects many in Africa and other developing parts of the world have been supported, China spending over $3.7 trillion.
Fruits of improved infrastructure development in African countries cannot be hidden and no doubt, the benefits outweigh BRI critics claims. A good example is Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway line constructed with Chinese assistance which reduced the 759 kilometres journey from the staggering three days on road to just 12 hours on train which eases transportation of goods and services in the region. It is not a surprise that some pundits and economists refer to the line as a lifeline investment for both Ethiopia and Djibout as well as entire region. If analysed well, one can say the above are signs of early harvest and benefits of BRI project.
All this shows that China’s BRI has already played a significant role towards reducing infrastructure funding gap in the world and should be supported in good faith than rivalry terms.
Worth noting is that China’s support for infrastructure especially in developing countries is not just about politics but Beijing’s leadership belief of the need for a better world. Indeed, Asia Development Bank head, Jin Liqun once observed; “The Chinese experience illustrates that infrastructure investment paves the way for broad-based economic social development, and poverty alleviation comes as a natural consequence of that.” China has demonstrated to the world that investing in infrastructure is vital when it comes to economic development of the country. Since 1960s, the U.S’ total budget on infrastructure has been around 5.8% while China averages at 8% annually. Indeed, Chinese people have two common saying that; “要想富” , “先修路” loosely translated; “Better roads lead to better life.” and “Build roads if you want to get rich.” This possibly explains China’s success story that saw the country eradicate extreme poverty.
To answer earlier paused questions, Biden’s B3W will remain fancy on paper but will not work, it is a paper tiger. It should be recalled, that the U.S has in past announced similar projects to counter China’s BRI but in vain. First was then secretary of States, Mike Pompeo’s proposal to create a a $113 million fund to support infrastructure, development in developing countries. Despite being so minimal, the project failed to kick off.
Also, U.S and G7 allies promise of supporting to bridge funding gap in developing countries with $40 trillion is something the world cannot rely on. It should be recalled that while announcing his Foreign Policy, president Biden was categorical that his Foreign Policy will squarely focus on American workers and indeed, while announcing the 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine headed to developing countries, he emphasized that it was going to help American workers.
Considering that the U.S is also struggling to improve her infrastructure funding which has been at 5.8% since 1960, B3W has minimal chances to be supported by Americans who drive government’s Foreign Policy. True president Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan at home, but this must be approved by congress yet it is already facing opposition from Republicans. The logic question is; if president Biden is facing real struggle to win congressional support for his home infrastructure plan, can he easily win congressional support for his infrastructure plans meant to support developing countries which is part of a bone of his Foreign Policy? To sum it up, Biden’s B3W may sound great but won’t move anywhere, it a paper tiger.
Ssemanda Allawi, (PhD) is senior research Fellow at Development Watch Centre, a Foreign Policy think tank.