On the other hand, China is by far their most important economic partner, and they are compelled by their economic interests to continue deepening economic engagement with China because the US simply cannot offer comparable new trade and investment opportunities. This deepening economic dependence on China pushed forward by the BRI works against their geopolitical freedom to support a US regional presence that defends the current rules-based governance system.
This dilemma explains regional perceptions of China and the US. The 2021 State of Southeast Asia opinion survey published by the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) found that among the elite opinion leaders surveyed in the 10 members of ASEAN, 76.3 percent named China as the most influential economic power in the region, while only 7.4 percent saw the US in this light. Moreover, 48.7 percent saw China as the region’s most influential strategic-political influence; only 30.4 percent gave the US this status.
Nevertheless, 63.1 percent welcomed US strategic influence and 61.5 percent would choose the US, while only 38.5 percent would choose China if they were forced to align with one or the other power. In the South China Sea, 62.4 percent are concerned by China’s militarization and assertive actions. In measuring trust toward major external powers, 63 percent had no confidence in China, putting it in last place, while only 16.5 percent indicated confidence. Japan ranked first in trust, earning the vote of 67.1 percent of respondents, while the US received 48.3 percent to rank third.
Around the world today, 140 countries have signed a bilateral agreement with China to participate in BRI cooperation. As mentioned above, among them are 18 European Union members including Italy, Greece, Portugal and Luxembourg. This collection of BRI partners creates a sizeable grouping for diplomatic and economic cooperation centered on China. This could well be described by the words of Xi Jinping: “a community of shared fate for humankind”. Having used the BRI to gather and consolidate this community under Chinese leadership, China is now expanding the scope of its BRI governance into cultural, political, legal, scientific, technological, and military spheres using associated party-state actors to advance China’s interests across the BRI geostrategic footprint.
BRI may have been sold to the world as a win-win initiative to provide developing countries with infrastructure financing and development opportunities. But Xi will likely measure its success by whether it creates a China-centered “community of shared human fate” and renders to Beijing the ability to reshape regional and global relations to serve China’s great-power ambitions. It would seem that after only seven years, and with many more to go before Xi’s retirement, the BRI has delivered a fair bit of success to China. Now that the fuller meaning of BRI has come into view, the challenge for those wishing to maintain liberal multilateral governance in Asia and the world is to mount an adequate defense against the heretofore successful effort through the BRI to set forth an alternative China-centered global vision.