Could China’s Huge Belt and Road Initiative Precipitate a New Cold War?

Could China’s Huge Belt and Road Initiative Precipitate a New Cold War?
Workers at a project site that forms part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” Haripur, Pakistan, Dec. 22, 2017 (AP photo by Aqeel Ahmed).

It is revealing of current American political obsessions that a recent book about the Marshall Plan’s relationship to the Cold War might be seen first and foremost as having lessons for today’s troubled ties between the United States and Russia. In that book, Benn Steil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that with the Marshall Plan’s launch in 1947, the U.S. and the Soviet Union “became irrevocably committed to securing their respective spheres of influence.”

Yet despite widespread concern about Russia, the most consequential great power struggle today is the one between the U.S. and China. This, moreover, is a relationship with more direct parallels to what Steil and others recognize as a key dynamic underpinning the Cold War’s origins: rival bids for economic and strategic influence, typically motivated as much by mutual American and Soviet suspicions concerning the other’s actions than by their own discrete objectives.

Indeed, the Marshall Plan is now the most common touchstone for analysts contending with the implications of the nearly trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, China’s huge international infrastructure and development plan. Beijing’s major play for a dominant role in regional and global affairs in the 21st century is, in fact, some 12 times larger than its postwar precursor.

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