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The Build Back Better World Partnership Could Finally Break the Belt and Road

When nations are freed from China’s oppressive debt practices, economies across the world can achieve sustainable growth through trade, stability, and collective prosperity.

By , chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. Gregory Meeks listens as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington on March 10.
Rep. Gregory Meeks listens as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington on March 10. Ken Cedeno/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first trip abroad showcased America’s return to the world stage, where it is once more leading the vanguard of like-minded trans-Atlantic allies—tied together by shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. However, to say this was simply a “return to normal” is selling it short.

Following the G-7 meeting in the United Kingdom early in Biden’s trip, the White House announced an agreement to form the Build Back Better World partnership—or the B3W—which would leverage the G-7’s development finance tools in investments in low- and middle-income countries around the globe.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first trip abroad showcased America’s return to the world stage, where it is once more leading the vanguard of like-minded trans-Atlantic allies—tied together by shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. However, to say this was simply a “return to normal” is selling it short.

Following the G-7 meeting in the United Kingdom early in Biden’s trip, the White House announced an agreement to form the Build Back Better World partnership—or the B3W—which would leverage the G-7’s development finance tools in investments in low- and middle-income countries around the globe.

Today, the developing world faces a staggering $40 trillion infrastructure investment gap that undermines global development and sustains poverty. Without critical infrastructure—like stable power grids, hospitals, high-speed internet, environmental resilience, roads, and ports—economies around the world are unable to modernize or provide for their populations. And when infrastructure projects are announced, they are too often doomed to fail because they fall short on funding; are mired in corruption; do not consider or adequately incorporate critical areas such as climate, health, and digital technology; or suffer from a lack of clear governance standards.

Under the last administration, the United States retreated into an America-alone policy that ceded leadership to rival nations that were more than eager to fill the void. Not only did American diplomacy devolve into grievance politics that alienated the United States’ closest allies—damage Biden worked to mend on his trip—but the United States also pulled back from developing countries.

In contrast, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is set to invest more than $1 trillion across more than 60 countries around the world to meet the glaring need for infrastructure. Of course, Belt and Road loans come with significant strings attached and a model utterly lacking in transparency, good governance, and labor or environmental standards. And China’s infrastructure investments are a Trojan horse to help it expand its political, economic, and military reach at tremendous cost to host nations and at America’s strategic expense.

Yet, with a United States retreating behind its own borders, it is hard to be critical of governments willing to take the only offer on the table. That’s especially true now, given the destructive COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated economies around the world and put greater strain on already stressed health infrastructures.

These realities underscore why B3W is an opportunity for the wealthiest like-minded countries to mobilize their collective capacity for spurring private investment where it is most needed. Mobilizing capital will be B3W’s primary challenge, but it is time for the United States to move from promises to tangible action. The United States and its G-7 partners must develop new tools to spur market-driven investments. They also need to coordinate with multilateral development banks and financial institutions to crowd in sustainable, private capital.

To counter the Belt and Road model, the United States should work with partners to emphasize and demand transparency and high standards from the outset of the Build Back Better World initiative. Countries around the world are starting to see the value in prioritizing equity and sustainability within their economic growth and development models. B3W should embrace those principles by ensuring that environmental and labor protections and transparency are built into the partnership’s processes as safeguards against corruption and poor governance. Pushing for a common set of standards across the major multilateral institutions and development banks would go a long way in ensuring infrastructure projects adhere to recognized safety and environmental standards, and that there is pressure on China to change its practices as well. The United States and its allies must also consider opportunities to strengthen and expand technical assistance where needed to support developing countries in implementing transparency and good governance mechanisms around infrastructure projects and trade.

B3W also provides an opportunity to rethink what infrastructure looks like in today’s world. The United States should ensure that investments are reliable, affordable, and sustainable. In addition to this, the United States must consider how technical and human capital limitations in many low-income and lower-middle-income countries present unique challenges in transitioning to clean energy sources. It is important we ensure a just transition that supports sustainable economic growth in developing countries as we work with them to address climate change and facilitate power sector reform. The international community must assist developing countries with knowledge and technology transfers to build out diversified and reliable critical infrastructure and human capacity in these sectors. Supporting the Green Climate Fund is one critical component in achieving this goal for a just and sustainable transition.

B3W must not invest simply to compete with China but because a high-standard, transparent, and environmentally and financially sustainable approach will benefit countless nations around the world, bolstering governance and global economic stability. Indeed, it would be a mistake to view the developing world solely through the prism of great-power competition with Russia and China. The United States needs to engage, for example, African nations on their own merits, understanding that cooperation on economic growth, development, and good governance practices serve each country’s mutual interests. That means refraining from a top-down approach and working with regional organizations, civil society, and diasporas to drive investments.

The Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement Act, legislation I introduced to respond to the challenges posed by China, embodies many of the same principles defining B3W. It assists developing countries in establishing independence from China by providing alternatives to Chinese assistance and financing. It creates a whole-of-government effort to counter predatory lending, especially in the critical energy sector, and positions the United States government to co-finance infrastructure, climate resilience, and adaptation projects to provide sustainable alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative in the Indo-Pacific and especially to vulnerable nations in the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. As B3W begins to take shape, it is a relief to see that the G-7’s values of environmental sustainability, transparency, social and labor safeguards, and anti-corruption form the foundation of this initiative as well.

It will be incumbent on Congress to provide tools for this crucial multilateral undertaking and work with the administration and its trans-Atlantic counterparts to mold the framework of B3W. The world is far smaller than it was at the dawn of the 21st century. The greatest challenges we face today are rarely contained behind national borders. When failing health infrastructure allows a pandemic to mutate and spread, it affects us all. When climate change or crumbling economies cause mass migration, it dominoes across regions. But when roads and ports are built, when innovation is unlocked with digital infrastructure, and when nations are able to invest free of China’s oppressive debt enforcement and asset seizure, economies across the world can achieve sustainable growth through trade, stability, and collective prosperity.

Gregory W. Meeks represents New York’s 5th Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, where he serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions.

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