Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President

While our national government retreats from international trade and climate accords, all in the name of putting “America First,” a main global rival is using a giant infrastructure and building program to forge ahead.

Invoking its rich history along the Silk Road, China is now funding and building 21st-century roads, rail lines, ports, airports, factories, power plants, and telecom facilities in dozens of countries. On land and at sea, China is using infrastructure projects to gain strong footholds and exercise profound influence on trade and foreign policy.

“One Belt, One Road” is a development program encompassing land routes from western China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. Sea routes run from southern China across the Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean Sea. Maritime projects include not just new ports, but also ships and cargo facilities.

Propelled by modern infrastructure, trade in this vast region could reach staggering new dimensions. The trade paths touch the world’s most vibrant emerging markets and many of its wealthiest established markets. Dozens of countries have joined the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in some way. China says it has already spent $1 trillion, and promises to spend much more.

China’s President Xi Jinping signaled his ambitions upon taking office in 2013. The plans have taken form over the past four years, drawing added momentum from a perceived U.S. retreat. Some analysts say China’s aims are “imperialist,” a thinly veiled effort to counter Western military influence, but none doubt their potential to cement a central position in global trade.

The “One Belt, One Road” formula is straightforward and twofold: Expand foreign markets to employ Chinese nationals and sell products that domestic markets alone will not consume; and dominate world infrastructure design and construction markets, focused on strategic locations that facilitate trade and improve military position.

The now-abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may have offered a Western alternative to China’s plan. Designed mostly to enhance U.S. influence in East Asia, the TPP would have created a free-trade pact for nearly half of the world’s economic production while applying Western labor and environmental norms. But in early 2017, the U.S. administration canceled the pact, claiming that it hurt U.S. business and labor. China has picked up the slack.

Architects will almost certainly feel the impact as U.S. engagement wanes in Pacific Rim markets. China may have been reluctant to retain American firms for expansion projects, but—as an interloper to what would have been the largest global trade deal in history—it would have faced some pressure to involve firms from other countries in these huge projects and their many needed ancillary buildings. Now there is little incentive to share.

Programs similar to “One Belt, One Road” are afoot in Africa and South America, where China is building power plants, dams, housing, and factories—mostly employing its own nationals and state-owned companies. Such investments will pay lasting dividends, as host countries turn to China for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. China is also investing heavily in renewable energy systems, and leads global solar panel manufacturing.

Couldn’t U.S. infrastructure policies seek to export our know-how and technology? Couldn’t we move along our natural trade routes—essentially south to Mexico and north to Canada by road and by rail, but nearly everywhere by sea and by air? Couldn’t excellent buildings form an element of our efforts to promote trade and influence? Do we really want to cede the international market space by default?