‘We Don’t Drown our Partners in a Sea of Debt’: U.S. Policy Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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Whereas the Obama administration had equivocated, the Trump White House declared its vehement opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative (bri). This shift went together with the Trump administration’s designation of the People’s Republic of China (prc) as a strategic competitor and a broader deterioration in bilateral relations. However, as it began to posit alternatives to the bri, the Trump administration fell back on the policy thinking of the established foreign policy community. In doing this, it tacitly accepted the importance of soft power and the adoption of strategies requiring close cooperation with allies and partners so as to develop regional infrastructural “connectivity” projects. The White House thereby stepped back from the unilateralism, “principled realism,” and reliance upon hard power that had defined Donald J. Trump’s 2015–2016 presidential campaign. Nonetheless, U.S. efforts to develop policy alternatives to the bri were limited, unstable, and variegated. The Trump administration’s actions in other policy arenas often stymied efforts to counter the prc and initiatives such as the build Act and “Prosper Africa” received scant resources. On the basis of this policy pattern, the article argues that policy communities at times can “harness” other counter-positioned, political currents, but ongoing ideational stresses and abrasion will inevitably characterize the process.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of American-East Asian Relations
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)374–400
Number of pages27
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • United States
  • China
  • Belt and road initiative
  • Policy communities
  • Soft power

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