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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expecting upwards of 40 world leaders to join him in Beijing later this week for the second international gathering on the Belt and Road Initiative — China's plan to build a massive network of ports, roads and railways across some 65 countries.

Why it matters: Belt and Road is just one element of China's plan to supplant the U.S. as the dominant global superpower within the next three decades. By the time Beijing's ambitions were widely understood in Washington, China’s success had already begun to feel inevitable.

Jonathan Ward, author of "China's Vision of Victory," tells me the goal of regaining China's former status as the world's supreme power dates back decades, and Xi has simply "taken off the mask."

  • Xi has also set a target date for China to cement its dominance: 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
  • Ward says Belt and Road is intended to impose the "coercive force of the Chinese economy to build strategic beachheads" around the world. "In the 19th century we'd understand that as empire building," he says.
  • Meanwhile, “it's full steam ahead on pretty much every human activity, from space to seabed, with the objective of becoming the world’s leader in all of these things."
  • "And with that, you build a foundation of power that is absolutely beyond what can be achieved by any other nation."

Chris Johnson, a former top CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: “If the Chinese want to go around the world wasting money I’m not so sure we should be trying to stop them.”

  • He says the U.S. should be paying less attention to Belt and Road — a series of pricey bets that might prove unsustainable — and more attention to the race for the technologies of the future: 5G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing.
  • “The risk is that we’re busy chasing Belt and Road, concerns over influence building and an ideological death struggle, when this is really where we should be placing our limited resources,” he says.
  • Johnson says U.S. leaders can’t bring a Cold War playbook to a rivalry that is fundamentally different, not least because of China’s integration into the global economy. “We need to be more thoughtful about this rather than just doing what’s comfortable,” he says.
  • He adds that what looks from D.C. like a clear Chinese strategic vision is actually much more complicated. “This is a country of 1.5 billion people, and [Chinese leaders] have inboxes too. So it’s messy.”

Authoritarians will take center stage at this week’s forum (Vladimir Putin is the guest of honor), but many of the world’s liberal democracies will also be well represented.

  • Italy, which controversially became the first G7 country to sign on to Belt and Road last month, is going. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz will be there. The U.K. is sending a delegation led by Finance Minister Philip Hammond in a move that is likely to rankle allies in Washington.

The bottom line: The U.S. remains the world’s leading economic, military and technological power. But Beijing’s investments, massive market and willingness to work with democrats and dictators alike mean that when Xi calls, much of the world is willing to come.

Go deeper: As China expands Belt and Road in Europe, its promise could diminish

Go deeper

Home confinees face imminent return to prison

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of prisoners who've been in home confinement for as long as a year because of the pandemic face returning to prison when it's over — unless President Biden rescinds a last-minute Trump Justice Department memo.

Why it matters: Most prisoners were told they would not have to come back as they were released early with ankle bracelets. Now, their lives are on hold while they wait to see whether or when they may be forced back behind bars. Advocates say about 4,500 people are affected.

The "essential" committee that still doesn't exist

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Nearly five months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the creation of the bipartisan Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, it's not been formed much less met.

Why it matters: Select committees are designed to address urgent matters, but the 117th Congress is now nearly one-quarter complete without this panel assembling. When she announced this committee, Pelosi described it as an "essential force" to "combat the crisis of income and wealth disparity in America."

Biden's ethics end-around for labor

President Biden surveys a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is excusing top officials from ethics rules that would otherwise restrict their work with large labor unions that previously employed them, federal records show.

Why it matters: Labor's sizable personnel presence in the administration is driving policy, and the president's appointment of top union officials to senior posts gives those unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy — even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own stringent ethics standards.