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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In challenging China's aim to dominate the future economy and set the global rules for how commerce is done, the U.S. and Europe are going up against history.

Quick take: For centuries, rising great powers have sought to thrive and exert influence by establishing a new global framework for trade. Now, Beijing wants to control the greatest businesses, and is building the biggest infrastructure project since at least the Marshall Plan — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Why it matters: When it is done, the system of ports, railroads and pipelines traversing some 65 countries will be the new face of Chinese foreign policy. But, led by Europe, Japan and India, many of the world's leading economies are balking, viewing it as a Trojan Horse for Chinese geopolitical, military and economic designs. In the case of the U.S., it is complaining about the details of Made in China 2025, Beijing's companion plan to dominate the economy of the future.

  • BRI's critics are right: Like the Greeks, Mongols, British and now Americans, the Chinese are establishing a basis to exert influence through commerce.
  • And that is to be expected: "They want to put their own stamp on the 21st century," James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University, tells Axios.
  • Yet ... its scale still boggles (map below): "It's so big it's almost impossible for one person to have mastery of the whole thing. Sometimes I wonder if China grasps the whole thing," says Jonathan Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who runs a project called Reconnecting Asia.
Expand chart
Adapted from a Mercator Institute for China Studies map; Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Europe is taking the lead in challenging BRI, Axios' Erica Pandey wrote earlier. As seems always the case with geopolitics, it is among players who want a piece of the action: the EU appears less vexed about BRI as a brute force power play and more that its companies compete on an equal footing for projects along the route:

  • In a scoop last month, the German financial newspaper Handelsblatt was leaked a report in which 27 of the 28 EU ambassadors to China (all except Hungary's) criticized BRI. The ambassadors said BRI “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalizing trade and pushes the balance of power in favor of subsidized Chinese companies.”
  • Handelsblatt cited a remark in January by Joe Kaeser, CEO of German industrial giant Siemens: “China’s [Belt and Road Initiative] will be the new World Trade Organization — whether we like it or not.”

In terms of public relations, China is presenting BRI as a friendly model of development. Millward points out a soft video produced by China Daily depicting BRI in the form of a children's bedtime story — a sort of Pax Sinica.

Though BRI isn't a fairy tale, Millward tells Axios that it's also not a redux of prior centuries. "We aren't going to end with a new British empire or a new American empire," he said. "It's going to be something different."

Go deeper: CSIS's atlas of 12,000 years of commercial history.

Go deeper

14 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Democrats propose raising debt ceiling through midterms

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

House and Senate leadership announced on Monday that they plan to attach a proposal to raise the debt ceiling through Dec. 2022 to a short-term, government funding bill. The bill must pass before the end of the month or Congress risks a shutdown.

Why it matters: Democrats are taking a huge risk by trying to force through an increase of the debt limit in its must-pass funding bill. The move is wishful thinking on behalf of Democrats who are hoping they can get at least 10 centrist Republicans to balk, as well as an effort to put Republicans on record opposing it.

Biden to stress U.S. does not seek new Cold War in UN speech

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

President Biden will use his first address before the UN General Assembly to lay out his vision for an era of "intensive diplomacy" with allies and "vigorous competition" with great powers — without a Cold War with China.

Why it matters: Biden will take the podium in New York on Tuesday with his own international credibility in question after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. His administration also is struggling to build international momentum to fight climate change, the pandemic and rising global authoritarianism.

5 hours ago - Health

Biden administration to lift travel ban for fully vaccinated international travelers

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients announced on Monday that the Biden administration will allow fully vaccinated travelers from around the world to enter the U.S. beginning in November.

Why it matters: The announcement comes as President Biden seeks commitments from countries to donate vaccines to the global COVAX initiative. He is expected to host a COVID summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week, and many of the countries attending have expressed frustration with the travel ban.