China’s Belt and Road and the Geopolitics of Infrastructure

The book on the Belt and Road Initiative – a Chinese government plan to build infrastructure such as fiber optic cables, ports, railways, and highways along a 21st-century version of the historic Silk Road – was literally written nearly a decade ago.

“The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon: Human Security and New Rules of War and Peace,” a 2010 book by the late Lt. Col. Shannon Beebe, a West Point graduate who helped form AfriCom, the U.S Military Command for Africa, and Mary Kaldor, a professor and director of Center for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics and Political Science, argued that the root causes of terrorism, armed and internal conflict were poverty, disease, health, inadequate sanitation and water supplies, discrimination and the effects of climate change. Beebe and Kaldor said that in order to achieve national and international security, Western nations needed to address and solve those problems.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that Shannon Beebe was killed in a 2011 private plane crash along with Liz Pignatello. Both were close friends.)

U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis seems to agree with Beebe and Kaldor. Mattis testified before Congress that climate change is a national security threat. In an apparent bow toward human security, Mattis famously told Congress “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” the implication being that diplomacy and international aid can act as an adjunct to defense and a deterrent to war.

Joel Wuthnow, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S National Defense University, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission, that by [f]ostering infrastructure development and regional economic connectivity,” BIR “can help address the roots of instability by lifting neighboring populations out of poverty.” That is a view shared by Chinese government officials, including the head of the Central Bank, the functional equivalent of the Federal Reserve, and a former ambassador.

A recent article in The Economist cited an analysis of BRI written by Peter Cai, the group chief advisory for Virgin Australia who was an economics journalist at major financial publications, which quoted the former Chinese ambassador to Pakistan as having said that BRI aims to solve security issues: “The best medicine is to address the terrorism problem the is through tackling the incubator of terrorism, mainly poverty.” Cai also wrote in his analysis for the Lowery Institute for International Policy, an Australian policy think tank, that the head of the Chinese Central Bank said BRI would bring China both “economic and national security dividends.”

Jonathan Hillman, a China scholar, testified before the commission that a goal of BRI was to “strengthen hard infrastructure with new roads and railways.” He testified that BRI “has focused on transportation projects: road, railroads, seaports, and dry ports” and that it “will expand in the future to include power plants, pipelines, telecommunications, and other connectivity infrastructure.”

Beebe told me that, while a Senior Africa Analyst for the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, he was tasked with determining what African military and civilian leaders needed to ensure security. Beebe said that, to a person, the leaders did not need weapons or American soldiers on the ground, rather they needed infrastructure improvements, such as water and sewage systems, roads, electrification, and medical facilities.

During his service in Iraq, Beebe says the key indicator of the attitude to U.S. forces among Iraqi civilians was whether the Army Corps of Engineers or the Navy’s construction battalions had built infrastructure. Where they had, the civilians were likely to welcome U.S. forces and see them as them as friends; where they had not, civilians viewed them as an occupying force and worked with Jihadist.

Three years before the launch of BRI and shortly before his death, Beebe told me said that time and time again he saw China undertake massive infrastructure developments. I distinctly remember his complaint that everywhere he looked in Africa he saw a road or a water pipeline or a sewer or a hospital that had been built by China.

Beebe warned that, unless the U.S. and our allies devoted the same resources into infrastructure development as the Chinese did, we risked repeating the same mistake we had made in Iraq and elsewhere: If we did not provide adequate human security, another nation would and that effectively turn our allies into potential adversaries.

He said he had made that point in briefings with senior military officials, at defense seminars, and in his book. I do not know whether people in the Pentagon absorbed his lectures, understood the briefing, or read his book, but there is no public indication that they acted on it. And that could turn out to be a national security blunder of monumental proportions.

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