Thomas P. Cavanna’s Research and Policy Seminar Presentation

Thomas P. Cavanna, the Center for Strategic Studies’ visiting assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, presented a new paper on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at a March 26 session of the Research and Policy Seminar series. Cavanna, in his seminar talk, argued for adopting a geopolitical and geoeconomic lens for analyzing the BRI, which reveals a long-term challenge to U.S. hegemony in all regions along the Eurasian rimland.

The BRI, a string of infrastructure and economic projects designed to connect the different regions of Eurasia (and beyond), has been subject to intense scrutiny since it was announced in 2013, with observers debating and struggling to understand its implications. At face value, it is an infrastructure assistance program for China’s western and southern neighbors that holds out the promise of, in the official jargon of Chinese policy-speak, “win-win” cooperation opportunities. There has existed, however, a puzzling divide between this benign, face-value interpretation of the BRI, and the possibility that this project of unprecedented scale may underpin dangerous imperial ambitions.

In Cavanna’s new paper, the professor argues that the BRI framework helps China solve the challenges inherent in its political geography, notably by securing access to energy sources and protecting sea lines of communication, out-flanking the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. But he also contends that in the long-term Beijing may be able to erode the very foundations of America’s hegemony. The full ambition of the Chinese project becomes visible if we first appreciate the efforts the United States has expended since the end of WWII in three critical Eurasian regions—the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe—to lock out competitors and prevent the rise of a Eurasian superpower backed by an integrated intra-regional trade and energy system. Furthermore, the magnitude and seriousness of the Chinese challenge is clearest when the focus is on economic, rather than military, statecraft.

In his presentation, Cavanna laid out the case that the United States has consciously pursued a policy of preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon in order to secure its energy and economic interests, deploying tools as varied as conditionality attached to economic aid and selective alliance-building. Washington has opposed regionalism when it threatens to eject U.S. influence, and exploited diplomatic crises to reinforce its centrality in regional politics. Cavanna argues that this tool-kit was judiciously deployed during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union, but has more recently been recklessly harnessed to “enlargement” goals, namely neoliberal globalization, foreign-led democratization, and military adventurism, resulting in U.S. overreach. After the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has fewer economic and diplomatic resources to protect its overextended commitments than ever before.

Into this scenario, China has stepped up. By advancing economic proposals instead of political or military ones, China has successfully worked to undermine hard-won U.S. hegemony while attenuating balancing tendencies in its backyard. Moving through the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe, Cavanna outlines how this strategy has been implemented. In the Middle East, Beijing has been free-riding on U.S. security policies, while building good relations with both U.S. allies and enemies. Central to this policy has been economic support of Iran, which could be a valuable partner in circumventing U.S. blockades and diverting its resources and attention. In South Asia, China has tapped Pakistan as its protégé, although its largesse in the region is spread widely. And in Europe, Chinese private and government investors have invested heavily, buying up companies both opportunistically and strategically, building a network of friends and partners and sowing division among traditional U.S. allies.

Cavanna closed his presentation with a series of recommendations. First, when the United States thinks about the challenges posed by the rise of China, it needs to balance its geographic focus between the Asia-Pacific and the rest of Eurasia. Second, economic tools of statecraft are as important to addressing the threat posed to U.S. hegemony as military and diplomatic ones. Third, if the United States is intent on reclaiming its primacy in the rimland regions of Eurasia, it will have to reach a modus vivendi with both Russia and Iran. And finally, the United States can only manage the long-term challenge through engagement with China itself.

Professor Cavanna’s paper will hopefully be the foundation of a larger research project; the Center for Strategic Studies and its research staff look forward to his exploration of these critical issues in the coming years.

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