How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions
By Luke Patey
Oxford University Press, 2021, 400 pp.
The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century
By Jonathan E. Hillman
Yale University Press, 2020, 304 pp.
China’s expanding global influence is spearheaded by what Beijing claims is $1 trillion worth of investments in roads, railways, cyber-infrastructure, oil fields, mines, and more, in an estimated 1,700 projects in at least 130 countries. Most of the projects are clustered under the imposing strategic vision known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to tie other economies more closely to China’s. Pushing in behind the investment beachheads are Chinese diplomats, peacekeepers, security contractors, shopkeepers, media enterprises, training and exchange programs, and many other forms of influence. These valuable books focus on the many forms of resistance that China is encountering as its influence expands. China had to renegotiate the terms of construction contracts when power flipped between rival parties in Argentina, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, among other countries. In Kenya and Malaysia, politicians who signed loan contracts were later prosecuted for corruption. In South Sudan, weapons China sold to the government found their way into the hands of rebels who attacked Chinese oil installations. Europeans have accused Chinese dealmakers of unfair competition and highhanded diplomacy. African governments complained of listening devices planted in Chinese-donated buildings. Many countries have played China off against rival donors, including India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Governments elsewhere have griped about the low quality of Chinese construction work and the high debt incurred through contracts with Beijing. Patey argues that pushback against China stems from the stifling effect of Chinese competition on local businesses and the fear of Chinese leverage over host countries’ foreign and defense policies. Hillman emphasizes that big infrastructure projects are hard to build on time and on budget, tend to cause environmental damage, spur local corruption, and often fail to make money. Patey’s book is more wide-ranging geographically, whereas Hillman’s usefully compares the BRI to historic empires and other countries’ development aid programs. Both authors note the lack of coordination among Chinese agencies and firms involved in the BRI, and the failure of these disparate projects scattered around the world to fuse into a cohesive network that links back to China. Still, money talks, and for the time being, no other country offers as much of it as China does. If China learns from its mistakes, it could become what Hillman calls “the most central node in the global flows of goods, data, and people,” with the power to set technical standards for everything from railways to wireless technology and to export its political values around the world. Patey’s view of China’s long-term goals is even more expansive: he warns that China seeks to “displace the United States as the world’s superpower.”