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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China was already building the largest single infrastructure project since the Marshall Plan — the Belt and Road Initiative, echoing planet-spanning 19th and 20th century moves by the British and then the United States to set the rules for global commerce.

What's happening: But now Beijing is looking to amplify its reach far beyond what the U.K. and the U.S. accomplished in their respective heydays.

Among its additional plans:

  • A "digital Silk Road" that expands China's presence in cyberspace.
  • The first global electricity grid, linking Asia, Africa and Europe.

These massive new projects, costing billions of dollars and built alongside Belt and Road, will unfold over decades. But they already paint an even starker picture of an ultra-powerful China at the center of economics and — by extension — politics:

  • In terms of its capacity to project its will, Jonathan Hillman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, compares the grid plans to Russia's leveraging of its natural gas pipelines to intimidate Europe.
  • "Chinese technology standards would effectively become global standards, benefitting Chinese companies and exposing nations reliant on that technology to security risks," Hillman tells Axios.
  • And "if China becomes a significant exporter or central node in this global grid, that could enhance its coercive power."

The background: Belt and Road is a slowly materializing network of ports, railroads, oil pipelines and other infrastructure across Asia, Africa, Latin America and reaching into Europe. It combines new projects and existing infrastructure, as the Chinese slap the Belt and Road label on almost any previously-built infrastructure along planned routes.

  • Now the Chinese are talking about a companion project — a "digital Silk Road" in which countries would avail of Chinese AI, quantum computing, and cloud expertise.
  • This digital highway would be "a community of common destiny in cyberspace," a vice minister of information technology told The Economist.
  • Even more ambitious is the super-grid, which would rely on China's optimization of a technology called ultra-high-voltage (UHV) transmission, writes the FT's James Kynge. UHV can transport electricity along vast distances, from continent to continent, and that's what this super-grid would do — unite different regions in one electricity space, according to RWR Advisory, a consultancy firm.
  • In an April talk at Harvard, Liu Zhenya, who runs the initiative, spoke of producing solar power in the Sahara and transmitting it to other, energy-starved continents.

This is not just hard geopolitics at work, says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR. Davenport tells Axios that the super-grid would also create some value around ultra-expensive, often white-elephant power projects that China built in places that can't necessarily afford them:

"I would say that a significant part of the motivation here is to find some modus vivendi for continuing with massive, high-risk and sometimes nonsensical (from a commercial point of view) power projects in foreign countries."

As with Belt and Road there is no talk of U.S. participation in these projects: Quite apart from Beijing's own wishes, the U.S., not prepared to cede geopolitical ground, has held itself aloof and has been often openly hostile to Belt and Road.

  • Be smart: But, should Beijing succeed in bringing in much of the world economy under its umbrella, the U.S. eventually risks growing economic isolation.

Go deeper:

Get more stories like this by signing up for our twice-weekly robotics, AI and labor economics newsletter, Future. 

Go deeper

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."