The Group of Seven (G7) recently announced the Build Back Better World Initiative (B3W), its competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure development super-project. B3W is both an ideological competitor and alternate “road” – a push to show the leadership and strength of democracies against China’s exported authoritarianism. For B3W to work, the G7 must shed its paternalistic past in favor of a localized approach that emphasizes cooperation with partner countries.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is paved with human rights abuses. Reports of forced labor and corruption abound along the planned network of highways, railways, and pipelines spanning from East Asia to Eastern Europe. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which essentially serves as China’s “bridge to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets” in the BRI, is currently subject to a brutal campaign of cultural and ethnic erasure by the regime in Beijing under the guise of bringing stability and countering terrorism in the region.
As the G7’s long-overdue competitor to Belt and Road, the B3W initiative is billed as a “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership” in which democracies will work to narrow the $40-plus trillion infrastructure gap in the developing world. The G7 has not specified exactly how much funding it intends to allocate in order to narrow this gap. BRI projects have been estimated to be valued at more than $4 trillion – although there are no official figures on BRI spending. While there are so far few details on the B3W initiative, its intention as an infrastructure rival to Belt and Road is clear.
B3W is as much about ideas as it is about infrastructure. It is soft power built with concrete. B3W is a natural response to what some have described as a branding strategy for China’s development work. For example, a 2021 White Paper from China’s State Council Information Office described a new era in Chinese development funding, driven by the BRI and defined by such principles as “universal harmony,” the “common good,” and “the Chinese idea of repaying kindness with kindness.” This language indicates that Beijing is attempting to portray BRI as a force for good that will promote international stability and cooperation.
Others have described China as engaging in a “life-and-death attempt to defeat democracy” by rejecting universal values, attempting to grow influence in international institutions, and exporting its authoritarian model to other countries. Beijing’s growing assertiveness and “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” support this. A counter-initiative to BRI, promoting the democratic model of governance and built on values of human rights and equality, is urgently needed.
Demonstrating Democratic Values
However, the new G7 initiative must be executed correctly. B3W should demonstrate the values of democracy, not simply talk about them. These values should include openness, accountability, and a commitment to anti-corruption. However, it is essential that the G7’s counter-campaign does not end up as a moral crusade that attempts to clumsily impose Western values on partner countries. Instead, it should focus on countering China’s authoritarian appeal by clearly demonstrating and setting standards for those values G7 countries do well, such as workers’ rights and regulatory standards, as rights such as these are fundamental to the democratic model and tend to thrive more in democratic states.
B3W projects will need to truly involve local partners. Stipulating fair pay and working conditions in line with — and preferably ahead of — International Labour Organization standards, as well as prioritizing partnerships with local workers and companies, will go much further in advancing human rights by offering a demonstrably fairer alternative to BRI, which has faced criticism on both its labor and regulatory standards. Likewise, prioritizing the employment of local workers wherever possible will put B3W projects on a positive footing, in contrast with previous criticism of Belt and Road projects for prioritizing Chinese workers over local laborers.
Rather than deferring to high ideals and great game politics, B3W should focus on creating deliverable project standards that promote equity, fair work, and community empowerment. Kristen Cordell, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me in an interview that the key will be in “taking the time at project outsets to conduct in-depth consultations into local requirements and local contexts.” This process, although slower, would be more inclusive and tailored to local needs than the more transactional BRI projects. Cordell suggests that B3W should seek coordination with specialists in climate change and in democracy and governance to ensure projects are led by expertise in both the standards they promote and in their actual implementation.
Cordell also argues that models like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be prioritized as the guiding principles behind B3W projects. This makes sense. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, which works on a majority system, the SDGs are as close to a universal model for development as we might get. This will be important in avoiding the notion that B3W projects might seek to promote a particularly Western worldview, rather than universally agreed standards and rights. For example, SDG 9 calls on states to “promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization.” By focusing on these specific goals through labor and environmental standards, B3W projects can ensure their outcomes are aligned with internationally agreed goals that are not specific to G7 values but still promote strong governance and equality.
Environmental and Human Rights Standards
B3W projects also should require countries in which projects are launched to make explicit commitments to meeting environmental and human rights standards. Insisting on unwavering regulatory standards, in which countries like the U.K. are recognized as global leaders, will be an important component of B3W’s appeal. According to Martin Thorley, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Nottingham, “many of the countries involved in B3W are regulatory superpowers. This is more important than those countries often realize.” Thorley notes that even Beijing has sought to build nuclear reactors in the UK, as meeting the regulatory standards there would demonstrate its capability and build its international prestige. Promoting unwavering regulatory standards in the context of both safety and sustainability, combined with G7 countries’ strengths in these areas, would make for a much stronger offer than BRI projects.
Rather than an imperialist throwback or hollow imitation of Belt and Road, the B3W has real potential to demonstrate the benefits of community partnership and the value of good work and human rights standards. This will require a clear departure from current aid models, which are often criticized as neo-colonial and often ignorant of local requirements. Instead, concrete demonstrations of the merits of values-based development will go much further.
Leading voices like U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Representative Gregory Meeks have already described the need for a localized approach, saying that the United States should “work with partners to emphasize and demand transparency and high standards from the outset of the Build Back Better World initiative.” The nascency of B3W presents the chance to perfect this approach from the outset. If the G7 fails to do so, B3W risks being another rhetorical pile-up that only does further damage to democratic ideals, driving countries and their populations further into the authoritarian camp.