01:29 - Source: CNN
China's Belt and Road plan

Editor’s Note: Parag Khanna is author of “The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century,” released in February from Simon & Schuster. The opinions in this article belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

As leaders and officials gather in Beijing this week for the second Belt and Road summit, they will do so nearly three decades since the key economies of Asia began stitching back together the Silk Roads that linked them before five centuries of colonialism and Cold War.

Belt and Road has been dismissed, particularly in the United States, as neocolonial debt-trap diplomacy, destined to collapse under the weight of financially spurious projects. Such hubris has not served America well in the past, nor does it today. Biding time is hardly a viable strategy against the force of history.

It isn’t too late for America to help shape Eurasia’s future in this direction, but it would require a meaningful grand strategy of promoting multipolarity across the world’s largest landmass rather than posing a false choice between America and China.

Asians have spent the past three decades relentlessly capitalizing on each other’s comparative advantages in energy, food, industrial goods, technology and more. By the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Asians were already trading more with each other than with the rest of the world, insulating them considerably from the demand shock.

In the decade since, China has taken the lead both diplomatically and commercially in promoting infrastructure as a global priority. In the mid-2000s, after traveling and tracing Chinese infrastructure projects around the world, I wrote, “China is winning the new Great Game because it is building the new Silk Roads.”

There is no doubt that China has first-mover advantage in building the new Silk Roads, but to view its emergence as a purely China-driven enterprise would be to neglect the reality that many other countries are significant players in these new economic networks.

Yet even in Belt and Road nations where China is most active, there is no assured pathway to them becoming Chinese dominions.

Malaysia and Pakistan have already substantially reduced their exposure to China to manage debt levels. From Nigeria to Kazakhstan to Mongolia, key resource hubs have pushed back to prevent any foreign country from owning controlling stakes in their utilities and industries. The informal name for their strategy goes by the acronym ABC: “Anyone but China.”

While China’s forays claim the headlines, they have also unleashed an acute case of geostrategic FOMO (fear of missing out), sparking an infrastructure arms race that will challenge China’s blitzkrieg diplomacy.

Japan and India have launched their own “Connectivity Corridors” to finance and build strategic infrastructure in third countries, and the European Union has established its own “Asia Connectivity Initiative” to capitalize on growth on the other side of Eurasia.

The EU has just toughened its stance on Chinese trade policy and intellectual property theft, even calling China a “systemic rival.” But it would be a mistake to believe that Europe has fallen into line with Washington’s trade war. European countries trade well over $500 billion more per year with Asia than they do with the United States, and thus have more at stake in trans-Eurasian integration. Neither Germany, France or the UK has joined the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, but all three joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015.

Germany’s Trade and Invest and chambers of commerce have formulated strategies to compete for more BRI business, with Siemens signing dozens of agreements for projects with Chinese partners. The UK-China “Infrastructure Alliance” aims to put British business front and center as vendors in third countries where Chinese investment is growing, while UK Export Finance subsidizes billions’ worth of British industry projects along its trade routes to the east.

Europe is showing how to engage with China while competing with it at the same time. It is precisely because Europeans have more to gain than Americans from BRI that they successfully wrested concessions from China. And as Europe pursues free trade agreements with Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and India, BRI will enable better access to Asia’s other wealthy markets. Each year, eastbound trains to Asia are catching up to westbound trains from China in volume.

Remember that BRI serves American business objectives as well. The primary user of the main freight rail line from Chongqing to Duisburg, Germany, is Hewlett-Packard. For American companies, BRI member countries collectively represent the next wave of global growth that they cannot afford to miss.

Take engineering contractors, who face anemic US infrastructure spending. General Electric, Honeywell International and Caterpillar all have decades of traction in Asia and are actively seeking roles as subcontractors to major Chinese firms involved in BRI-related contracts.

American industry needs to promote its competitive advantages in logistics, energy services and other sectors across Asian markets – especially in South and Southeast Asia, where populations are younger and growth is accelerating.

By vigorously competing for business across Afro-Eurasia – as its allies already do – the United States can much more successfully support policies that dilute Chinese influence, promoting multipolarity in Asia.

Indeed, weaning countries off Chinese loans requires more than just denouncing debt-trap diplomacy. The US International Development Finance Corp. will launch later this year, cobbling together existing US aid and investment programs. But the capital it can actually deploy – at most $60 billion – will be a fraction of what developing countries need, especially compared with the lending offered by Chinese state-backed banks and funds.

The United States needs a strategy for the infrastructure race that puts its allies’ interests first, rather than pretending that America is the central power on the other side of the planet.

Containment and rollback are not how America should respond to a connectivity initiative that is voluntarily drawing in dozens of adjacent nations. The goal of the United States should be to ensure that Belt and Road becomes a forum for fair competition, not a walled-off Chinese garden.

American and European diplomats and business executives should join forces in demanding that Belt and Road adhere to its stated principles of promoting free enterprise. Together, they could push for lower interest rates and transparent public tenders before deals are already agreed in opaque backrooms.

By 2020, Asia will represent more than 50% of global gross domestic product in purchasing power parity terms (the most appropriate measure for a world in which Asians pay Asian prices to buy things from each other).

Importantly, China represents less than half the GDP of Asia and less than one-third of its population. China did not dominate the ancient Silk Roads and, contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, will not dictate their future, even as it has taken a lead role in building them.

The more the United States engages directly and indirectly with BRI countries, the less likely BRI is to become a one-way path to Chinese hegemony. Indeed, if the world – and the United States – can steer BRI correctly, the project should actually help diffuse power, not concentrate it in China’s hands. Beijing is building roads, but all roads won’t lead to Beijing.