A tour of the Forbidden City, dinner in the Great Hall of the People, a review of the People’s Liberation Army: Exactly as expected, the Chinese leadership slathered on the gold-leafed pomp with trowels when President Trump arrived in Beijing this week. As Jane Perlez put it in Tuesday’s New York Times, “They know just how to handle an outspoken tycoon with a big ego.” Translation: Xi Jinping, with galvanic plans to connect and develop the Eurasian continent in pursuit of a new and peaceable world order, understood he had to entertain a powerful man whose nation has no useful reply to such matters.
This is an historically significant moment between China and the United States, one that has been coming the world’s way for some years. President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, announced four years ago and celebrated by many world leaders in Beijing this past spring, is destined to be a (if not the) defining project of the 21st century. Beijing’s steadily waxing alliance with Moscow stands to make Russia an essential bridge between East Asia and Europe as well as Beijing’s primary partner. Next to this, Trump proffers it is hard to say what. Certainly not a vision, other than the maintenance of American hegemony. If the United States has a policy across the Pacific now—and this is a question—it amounts to keeping the region divided against itself while maintaining an ever heavier military footprint in an effort to hold on to a fading influence.
There is the builder and the regime-changer cum spoiler, the nation that proposes a global order based on widely shared prosperity and the nation that depends on perpetual conflict to justify itself. I do not think this is a reductionist thought. If I wore a little Stars and Stripes on my lapel I would have found this week’s two-man play in Beijing embarrassing. With no taste for boastful patriotism, I found it merely fascinating. If history were a rail yard, we would now be watching one train pull into the station and another that forces itself onto the siding because its engineers cannot imagine sharing the tracks.
Press coverage of Xi’s Belt and Road festivities this past May was especially pitiful even by the low standards of our media, you may recall. Belt and Road is best described as a multi-year vision, a plan to join Asia and Europe by way of a vast assortment of infrastructure and industrial projects. The ambition and insight evident in it are far-sighted and, to me, admirable. One way or another, however, we are not to take Belt and Road seriously: It is extravagant and will never work, it is self-serving, it will spread corruption, it will leave beneficiary nations in debt to Chinese banks. Here is the column I wrote at the time. I take it perfectly seriously.
I note the disgracefully spiteful press coverage because it was neither more nor less than a faithful reflection, as the clerks in our media are paid to produce, of the thinking (or the avoidance thereof) in Washington. It is the same mistake Barack Obama made in dismissing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank when Xi launched it three years ago, only to watch as the world flocked to join. The AIIB is, indeed, one of Belt and Road’s foundational financing institutions, as its name implies. Washington never learns, of course, because it does not want to. Bringing up the rear, it is still negotiating membership in the AIIB, even as it repeats the error by pretending Belt and Road is not worth its time.
“China’s Belt and Road Initiative has become the organizing foreign policy concept of the Xi Jinping era,” Nadège Rolland, a former official in France’s Defense Ministry, writes in “China’s Eurasian Century?,” a monograph recently published by the National Bureau of Asian Research. “From London to Canberra, Moscow to Cairo, Astana to Jakarta, cooperation under the BRI umbrella is now the main theme of discussions between Chinese officials and their local counterparts.” I wonder what Rolland had on her mind when she wrote that list. For a pair of soy-stained chopsticks straight from my collection, what national capital is conspicuously missing from it?
Lost greatness is never a theme to greet other than warily when national leaders—including America’s, we now have to say—sound it. Belt and Road has a very specific genealogy: It is intended to revive the dense weave of links between East and West that endured until Constantinople fell—“fell,” I should say—to the Ottomans in 1453. One can live without this kind of exotic legitimacy. On the other hand, 200 years ago China was second only to Western Europe—and far ahead of the young United States—as a contributor to global GDP. This is according to figures gathered by Angus Maddison, the late and noted historian of global economic patterns. A dozen years ago, China was on the brink of catching up with Europe and the United States, according to Maddison’s latest figures. By now it almost certainly has.
“And the initiative is making rapid progress,” Rolland adds. There are numerous reasons for Belt and Road’s remarkable pace, but high among them is China’s wide-ranging alliance with Russia. I have been astonished for years now at our media’s relative neglect of this momentous development.
Among the first occasions when Sino-Russian relations in the post-Soviet, post-Mao era added flesh to this now burgeoning alliance occurred in the spring of 2014, when Xi and Vladimir Putin signed a natural-gas agreement in Shanghai worth $400 billion. Since then, cooperation between Chinese and Russian entities of all kinds has ranged widely: It is made of politics and diplomacy, finance and investment, technology and industry. Look at a map: The benefits flow in both directions, but Russia is a linchpin in Xi’s Belt and Road plans. Moscow and China now talk with notable frequency of developing a de-dollarized global financial system. I customarily think of this as inevitable but far off in the future. Maybe not so far off as all that.
You have to consider how, together and separately, China’s and Russia’s economic and energy diplomacy are changing the map of Eurasia. For instance: Putin just announced his intention to sell natural gas to Iran via pipelines running through Azerbaijan; this past week, Rosneft, the Russian energy company, signed a $30 billion investment accord with Tehran; Russia also just announced plans to build a pipeline connecting Iran, Pakistan, and India. Atop this, China is blueprinting a land-and-sea transport route through Kazakhstan and Georgia to Greece and Western Europe, a corridor of 7,456 miles that will connect China’s factories to Europe in 18 days by rail. Go back to the map: The lines grow ever denser. And there is much more of this to come.
To understand the Sino-Russian alliance more fully, note the date of the Shanghai gas deal. The accord was a decade in negotiation, but it was signed a few months after the American-cultivated coup in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions regime Washington imposed on Russia. Those events appear to have been key accelerators in hastening the elaboration of Moscow’s many-sided involvement with Beijing. I give Washington credit for consistency: It so often succeeds in acting against its own interest, always because it does not seem to see further than the next week. Policy is improvisation in Washington. That is not how the 21st century is going to work.
I wonder whether Trump discussed Belt and Road to any useful extent with Xi. As Washington turns Xi’s vision handily into a problem, it is one all Americans share: This is the problem of lost opportunity. What about Russia? Did Trump and Xi get into that? With evident delight, our press has harped this week on the various going-nowhere Russia investigations as a serious impediment for Trump during his tour of Asia. Trump has a Russia problem all right, but “Russiagate” has nothing to do with it: That is mere distraction. It is again the problem of squandered opportunity. Few of us appear to realize it yet, but we are already beginning to pay the price of these errors. And that price will mount.