‘Belt and Road’ for a ‘Better World’?: China-US relations and 50 years of the Shanghai Communiqué

On the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué this year, Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi made an interesting statement calling on the United States to jointly collaborate on the Belt and Road Initiative and the Build Back Better World (B3W) project. Initially perceived as rival projects of power assertion, the offer comes at an interesting juncture as Washington and Beijing prepare for the road ahead in the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Handshake that changed the world

The saying ‘Only Nixon could go to China’ is well known among international relations circuits and perfectly sums up the build up to the Shanghai Communiqué.

It was at the height of brewing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union pertaining to Moscow’s incursions in Czechoslovakia, its growing defence capacities and the Communist movement in Vietnam that pushed the American forces closer to defeat; as well as between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union over border and ideological tussles after the death of Stalin that compelled a staunch anti-Communist of the like of the US President Richard Nixon to shake hands with an equally staunch ideologue, the Chinese Communist leader  Mao Zedong, who had been bitter rivals since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the rule of the Communist Party in 1949 hence, giving birth to the said expression which points to how only someone with a clearly stated ideological leaning could act in contradictory ways without drawing criticism.

Staying true to the gravity that the expression carries, Nixon’s handshake with Mao proved to be a major breakthrough in geopolitics. It showed how common and pressing concerns could bring even the worst adversaries together, crossing ideological barriers which at the time were considered too sacrosanct to trespass. The result was the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 which established diplomatic relations between the United States and China.

The Communiqué was as contradictory as historic. It did not just record the diametrically opposed positions of the two sides on issues of international concern such as supporting rival governments in Vietnam and Korea but also recognised that the socio-political systems of the two were very different from each other but must not become a roadblock in negotiations.

The status of Taiwan became a crucial question. While the Chinese side claimed the People’s Republic of China to be the ‘sole legitimate’ government of “One China” that existed on both sides of the Strait, the United States agreed that “Chinese on both sides of the Strait see themselves as belonging to One China”. It agreed to withdraw its military forces from Taiwan but did not clearly accept which side it recognised as the legitimate “One China”. The Shanghai Communiqué hence became an instrument where the two sides agreed only to disagree.

An Uneasy relationship

Fifty years on, the Sino-US relations remain strained at several levels, hitting an all time low during the latter days of  former US President Donald Trump’s regime.

While the two sides have cooperated on several aspects including establishing sister cities and states for development; on the Iranian nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; countering health crises such as Ebola; on climate change in the form of the Paris Agreement as well as in business with a whopping US$750 billion of bilateral trade; suspicions between the two remain high.

Contentions appear on several tangents including on the allegations of  human rights violations in China; China’s attempts of devaluing its currency, the Renminbi (人民币),leading to an unfair ‘trade war’ against the US; China’s incursions and sovereignty claims over islands of the South and East China Sea; the alleged role of China behind the origins of the Coronavirus; the alleged US involvement in the Hong Kong protests; allegations of espionage and cyber attacks on both sides, etc.

The sovereignty of Taiwan still remains a thorny issue between the two nations. While China claims full sovereign rights over the island which has become more assertive since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, the United States has continued to extend support to the Taiwanese regime while coursing through the Six Assurances, the Three Joint Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act which does not recognises Taiwan as a separate nation but promises arms and economic support and hence does not explicitly challenge China’s sovereign claims. Beijing, however, has protested against this stance which it has dubbed “illegal” and against the spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué.

Beijing has also called out expansionism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the formation of the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad  ( comprising India, US, Japan and Australia) which it alleges to be an “exclusive” organisation and an “Asian NATO“.

Washington does not view China’s economic rise favourably and claims that it intends to turn the liberal democratic global world order upside down in its quest to attain hegemony. Even after fifty years, the ice has not completely thawed.

The Belt and Road Initiative

The One Belt, One Road (一带一路) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stands as China’s most ambitious project so far. It is a long term transcontinental infrastructure and investment project which seeks to connect China with Africa, Asia and Europe through land based Silk Road Economic Belt (丝绸之路经济带) comprising of 6 development corridors  and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (21世纪海上丝绸之路). The official map also shows the Polar Silk Road (极地丝绸之路) which connects Chinese ports to the  seas across Moscow to Scandinavia, which forms a part of China’s Arctic policy.

Launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the BRI is open to all countries that wish to join and focuses on intergovernmental cooperation on policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds through culture and academic exchanges as well as media cooperation. Apart from extending China’s diplomatic and economic network, the project has also been perceived as China’s stint at Major Country diplomacy (大国外交) through which it seeks an international leadership role.

So far, 130 countries have endorsed the initiative. The BRI however has been criticised on several fronts. Skeptics have termed it an instrument of extending Chinese political and economic hegemony by pursuing a debt trap diplomacy where developing countries are granted loans beyond their capacities to repay which leads to cessation of ports and land by China. The project has also been called out for its alleged lack of transparency. Moreover, the BRI is also said to benefit China in terms of capital returns and employment opportunities more than the host countries.

Washington has sought to counter Beijing’s BRI through several initiatives such as the Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy, the Blue Dot Network, and the most elaborative, the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative.

Build Back Better World (B3W)

The B3W project was launched in June 2021 at the Group of 7 (G7) meeting as an alternative to the BRI launched by the world’s richest 7 democracies which promised to develop $40 trillion worth of infrastructure for low and middle income countries by 2035.

Although similar in blueprint, US President Joe Biden highlighted fundamental differences between the BRI and the B3W as he stated that unlike the former, the latter was a “value-driven, high-standard, transparent financing mechanism” which would focus on four key areas- climate, health, digital technology and gender equity. As a product of democracies, the B3W in Biden’s words is far more “equitable” than the BRI which stems from “autocratic” forces like China.

The lending and private investment based initiative which builds on Washington’s Blue Dot Network has received a welcome response from many Asian countries such as Thailand.

What can collaboration bring?

The United States has not issued any official response to China’s offer of collaboration. The two mega projects retain several flaws.

While the B3W still remains a rough skeleton and has not been fleshed with details, the Belt and Road Initiative seems to be in deep waters.

The enormous investments often in unprofitable markets threaten to be a resource drain for China. Similarly, facing their own economic downturn, it is skeptical how much and how long  the G7 economies would be able to sustain the B3W.

The two rival  projects might also cement divisions between Chinese and American allies and threaten a return to the bipolar world of the Cold War era. Such a scenario would only flare political differences and fan animosity. Moreover, changes in regime in the host countries  which might not be favourable to the projects also keep the future of the mega projects at stake.

The environmental costs of the two separate projects cannot be overlooked. As the world inches closer to the disastrous consequences of climate change, the aggressive depletion of natural resources in a competitive spree between the two is the least desirable of all. The rival projects might also threaten military build up.

Collaboration between the two projects would not only solve these issues but would also act as a confidence building measure between the two superpowers, not to forget nuclear powers, which makes interaction even more important to avert any unforeseen disaster.

Interestingly, the offer also closely follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Washington has staunchly criticised Russia and slapped it with fresh sanctions, Beijing has cautiously abstained from voting against Russia in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) while at the same time referring to the act as an “invasion” which renders it offensive by the United Nations Charter and not a “special military operation” as Moscow claims, as well as called for mediation. Though Russian invasion challenges American hegemony and hence appears beneficial for Beijing, China’s actions show that it is somewhere aware that such unilateral invasions will not fare well, neither for itself nor for others and would only add up to the instability to the loss of everyone. The offer to collaborate with Washington in this regard might be read as a positive sign but the intention and commitment remains questionable.

Is collaboration possible?

Much water has flowed down the bridge in the last 50 years since the Shanghai Communiqué was signed and the Sino-US relations have seen both ups and downs but have largely remained cold, weakening any chances of collaboration that too on  projects as massive as the BRI and the B3W. More than any development plans, the two projects are instruments of power assertion which focus on building allies and countering the threat which stems from the other side.

Though strained, the Sino-US relations are too important for either party to fail. The economies of the two countries are closely enmeshed which make decoupling let alone isolation, difficult. Collaboration on the two projects might not be possible but the two nations can start by cooperating on softer issues such as cultural and academic exchanges, state visits as well as trade which would eventually build a path for discussing harder and more contentious issues and might lead to greater political cooperation.  Both Washington and Beijing must realise that their own interests and that of the larger international community lie in cooperation rather than confrontation. They do not just owe responsibility to their own people but to the world at large. The Ukrainian crisis has proven how disastrous a lack of cooperation can get which takes the ugliest forms of humanitarian crisis.

Fifty years later, whether Washington and Beijing recognise or not, they are faced with the same crises in the form of non-traditional security threats such as climate change and health crises which demand immediate cooperation.

While a return to  the spirit of Shanghai Communiqué might be a long road for the two to walk, they must review their policies towards each other and take to the diplomatic route of negotiation.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.