CSS Research and Policy Seminar with Thomas Cavanna

Thomas Cavanna, visiting assistant professor at The Fletcher School, presented a paper on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its implications for U.S. grand strategy in the Indian Ocean region on May 10. The paper discusses the policies that Beijing has developed under President Xi Jinping to erode the foundations of U.S. hegemony over key chokepoints, lines of communication, and sub-regions in the area. It argues that despite significant setbacks and the response mounted by the United States, India, and others, China has made significant strides toward its objective.

Cavanna structured his paper and presentation by sub-regions, including the Strait of Malacca, South Asia’s coastline, the island states in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Horn of Africa, and the Suez Canal. After a brief review of Washington’s and Beijing’s respective geostrategic calculi in each of these areas, he examined the evolution of China’s influence in pivotal local states since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The paper recognized BRI’s many ambiguities, setbacks, and controversies. But it also emphasized its resilience and strategic coherence, and it explained how BRI could progressively debilitate the foundations of the U.S.-led system of alliances and security partnerships in the region writ large.

Cavanna stressed the sharp differences that separate the Chinese and American approaches to the region. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy only covers the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, focuses almost exclusively on maritime issues, remains military-centric, and engages only some of the region’s states. In stark contrast, Beijing’s strategy combines geo-economics, omnidirectional diplomacy, and a growing military presence, and transcends the Indian Ocean itself.

Professor M. Taylor Fravel of the Security Studies Program at MIT, who served as discussant, provided invaluable comments to help refine the draft. He suggested a more selective coverage of the dynamics at play, a more formalized framework of analysis, and a more detailed discussion of the operationalization of “influence,” in addition to numerous comments on China’s domestic and regional policies. Fravel’s intervention was followed by other comments and questions coming from seminar participants, which stimulated discussion on the topic and its importance. Cavanna aims to submit his article and a larger book proposal on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and U.S. grand strategy in the coming months.

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