Donald Trump’s temper tantrum at the Group of 7 nations summit on June 9, where he insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and retroactively withdrew US support for the summit’s final communiqué, was only the latest instance of his ham-handed approach to international affairs. While Trump seems eager to undermine the US-led Western alliance and fears abound of Russia’s growing influence, the power to watch may in fact be China, argues Federico Rampini. Reporting for the left-of-center Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Rampini has been a foreign correspondent in Paris, Beijing, and New York and authored 20 books. In this excerpt from Le linee rosse (“The Red Lines”), he explains how the massive public-works program China is sponsoring throughout Asia is projecting economic and political power, just as the United States did after World War II—and supplanting the American Century with a future made in China.—Mark Hertsgaard
Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to reassure us: His China is a benevolent power. It is only interested in foreign exchanges that deliver reciprocal benefits—win-wins, where all parties come out ahead. Xi’s model for this vision of China’s international relations is the archetypal Silk Road, a great commercial thruway that generates wealth along its entire length.
“The Silk Road” is the term German geographer Ferdinand von Richtholfen coined in 1877 to describe an ancient reality: the commercial and caravan route that connected the Mediterranean with central Asia and the Far East since before the Roman empire. It’s the road Marco Polo, son of Venetian merchants, traveled in the 13th century to reach Cathay, the China of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, as described in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo.
The New Silk Road China envisions today comes under the name “The Belt And Road Initiative” and is seen as the foundation of a new form of globalization—globalization 2.0, if you will. One trillion dollars is a conservative estimate for what China is investing to construct basic industrial infrastructure—cargo trains, ports, pipelines, electrical lines—in countries from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia to Central Europe. This titanic public-works program, whose massive costs are being paid mostly by China itself (albeit with considerable public debt), will boost China’s exports and gain preferred access to the natural resources of the countries involved. But the New Silk Road is not intended solely to expand China’s economic reach; it is also meant as an alternative to the global leadership the United States has long provided. With the American Century coming to a close, China is proposing to replace it with this Pacific model.
Today the West is turning its back on multilateralism and globalization, and not only because of Donald Trump. Even before the 2016 US elections, the victory of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom marked the start of a retreat from the post–World War II era of favoring open markets. As soon as Trump arrived in the White House, he tore up the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, the treaty with Asia his predecessor, Barack Obama, worked years to achieve. Meanwhile, the counterpart treaty between the United States and the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, had already expired, again not because of Trump: It was the Europeans who no longer wanted that agreement.