Although the world has been ravaged by the novel coronavirus since the beginning of the year, the great power politics between the US and China - the world's largest two economies - is still on. The South China Sea is probably the most contentious place around which great power politics is revolving. Last month the US imposed another round of sanctions that target 24 Chinese state-owned companies, barring them from doing business with the US firms because some of these firms are linked to building islands in the disputed South China Sea.
China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) in one of those companies. CCCC and other state affiliated firms are also key players in the Belt and Road Initiative. China is increasingly asserting its presence in the neighbourhood, especially in the South China Sea. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is instrumental in Beijing's attempt to pursue its ambitious policy. One significant response of the US against the rising influence of China is the creation of a master project called the Blue Dot Network (BDN). The big question is can Blue Dot Network be a viable alternative to China's famous Belt and Road Initiative?
Blue Dot Network is officially referred to as "a multi-stakeholder initiative to bring together governments, the private sector and civil society to promote high-quality, trusted standards for global infrastructure development". Officials have argued that it will be "principle based" and "sustainable". The main purpose of it is to motivate foreign investors to take interest in the poorer countries where investors lack interest to do business due to lack of transparency, wide-spread corruption, political volatility and climate change issues.
While its scope is global, the focus is on the Indo-Pacific. It has been identified by some commentators as America's counter to the contentious Belt and Road Initiative, which has been criticised by the West for its vicious "debt-trap policy". It is expected to support "alternatives to predatory lending", alluding implicitly to the BRI. At first glance, the two appear to deal with disparate contents. But fundamentally the end goal is the same, although the means are quite different. Officials have stated that the scheme will render financial assistance for infrastructure projects to developing countries in the region, while ensuring 'transparency' and 'environmental sustainability'.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at the Bangkok business forum, where the US-pioneered initiative rolled out, that "the Indo-Pacific is the single-most consequential region for America's future" and the goal of this is about "supporting alternatives to predatory lending". Washington's desire is expressed in a very straightforward manner. "We are here permanently, and we will be continuing to invest more here," Mr Ross continued. He also said that the United States has "no intention of vacating our military or geographical position". Wilbur Ross's comments encapsulates the intention of US policy-makers clearly.
For Australia and Japan, it offers a platform where like-minded partners are engaged in a broader cooperation framework in the face of the thriving presence of Beijing. As Bates Gill, an expert of US-China relations at Macquarie University, said, it as a "coalition of like-mindedness" creating opportunity for Canberra for greater engagement with Tokyo and New Delhi as well as reassuring US presence in the region.
India is the fourth member of Blue Dot Network- an American blueprint. Due to the reality of geographical proximity and the sheer power of the Chinese economy, policymakers in New Delhi have kept the door open for the Belt and Road Initiative. Again, simultaneously, they are worried and suspicious of Chinese agenda. At some point, India's ambitions might have to clash with Beijing's interests and certainly New Delhi will not allow anyone to play the big brother role in its backyard.
After three years of deliberation, it was officially revealed by US administration at a business forum in Bangkok last November. The enterprise came at a time when American influence on the Indo-Pacific is waning sharply. At the same time, China is asserting its footprints in the Indo-Pacific region through BRI. Heavily praised at the early stage, the image of China has been tarnished as more and more countries are losing faith in the undertaking. As countries are increasingly getting disabused by the gradual unmasking of Chinese intention, Washington sees an opportunity. Blue Dot Network is a step towards taking advantage of that opportunity. It serves two functions: firstly, to conserve the existing order and secondly, to contain Beijing's growing influence.
The liberal world order that America and its allies have created after the death and destruction of World War II is now facing many challenges. Other forces, mainly from China and Russia, are threatening to break the order. The predicament is exacerbated by the rising populism and nationalistic fervour in the liberal countries. Trump's 'America First' policy and Britain's divorce from the European Union proves this point. Liberal elites are concerned that the institutions and norms that have facilitated cooperation for the last seven decades are breaking down. The greatest example is the Belt and Road Initiative, a visionary design by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The second objective centres on reducing China's growing influence in the region by confining it to its allies. Containment policy is best known in the context of the Cold War when the US prevented the spread of communism. At the backdrop of Trade War, Blue Dot Network might be the beginning of a new containment strategy by which America creates a coalition around China to stem its ambitions. Some commentators have dismissed its capacity to counter BRI, terming the endeavour "delusional". An editorial in Global Times, a Chinese state owned newspaper, has cursed it to fail and accused the United States of attempting to divide the region. China is aware of the menace it poses. Beijing has not yet officially responded, but surely it will be scrutinised carefully.
The initiative, in theory, wants to harness the development potential of the region. But it has implications on other fronts. BDN and BRI are inextricably interconnected. It is tied to the so-called Trade War between the world's two largest economies, the United States and China. However, it is too early to forecast the success of the Blue Dot Network and how it plays out is still to be seen.
Sabyasachi Karmaker, final-year student of International Relations at University of Dhaka and Editor at Youth Policy Forum. My twitter handle is: @sabyokarmaker