The Speech Heard Round the World
On November 21, Ambassador Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, delivered an address on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—the most expensive and operationalized component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—at the Wilson Center.
Wells, the top South Asia official at the State Department, did not mince words. She offered a comprehensive critique of CPEC that faulted the infrastructure super project for its high costs and lack of transparency, for burdening Pakistan with high debt, and for not bringing the types of economic benefits to Pakistan—such as jobs—that one might expect from such a major investment.
More broadly, Wells drew a sharp contrast between the Chinese sustainable growth model embodied by CPEC and the broader BRI—which she suggested was highly unsustainable—and that offered by the United States.
In this regard, the speech should be seen as a policy address on the Indo-Pacific strategy—the new Trump administration Asia policy that aims to articulate an American vision for growth and prosperity, one reflecting a “free and open” and “rules-based” order that, in Washington’s view, is wholly lacking in China’s sustainable growth paradigm for Asia. While this contrast with Beijing is not articulated specifically in any of the administration’s speeches or documents on the Indo-Pacific strategy, it is very clearly implied.
Additionally, the harsh criticism of Beijing—Wells was very explicit that she was targeting Chinese officialdom, referring repeatedly to the “Chinese Communist Party” while expressing America’s support for the Chinese people—reflects the Trump administration’s unflinchingly hard line on the Chinese government. Indeed, while the administration has made conciliatory noises about some its most bitter rivals (think North Korea and even Iran), its position on China has been consistently hawkish.
To be sure, the type of criticism that Wells heaped on CPEC is not new
To be sure, the type of criticism that Wells heaped on CPEC is not new; for several years, observers—including some CPEC boosters in Pakistan—have warned of the risks of a project that could bring debt misery to a country already struggling with a serious balance of payments crisis, and that is so troublingly difficult to monitor because it is cloaked in so many layers of opacity.
However, no U.S. official had ever offered public comments on CPEC as direct and detailed as those of Wells. Both the Trump and Obama administrations had been strikingly quiet about the project, even as there was little reason for either to support a major initiative that involved America’s top strategic rival expanding its investments and influence in a country that figures prominently in U.S. strategic considerations, but where Washington is notably less present and popular than China.
This helps explain why Wells’ speech generated banner headlines for days in Islamabad, Beijing, and also New Delhi. The latter has regularly registered its opposition to a project spearheaded by its biggest strategic rival on the soil of its most bitter enemy, and it was likely quietly pleased with the speech—even though it did not offer any public reaction.
The speech didn’t only produce dozens of media reports—it also garnered attention on high levels in both Beijing and Islamabad. China’s ambassador to Pakistan denounced the speech, as did the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. They made no effort to couch their criticism in the niceties of diplomatic speak; rather, they lambasted Wells’ speech as a smear and slander.
Meanwhile, in Islamabad, senior officials, including Minister for Planning Asad Umar, excoriated the speech, and the Pakistani Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning it. That said, the reaction in Islamabad was notably more subdued than Beijing’s furious fusillade, perhaps reflecting Islamabad’s realization that the speech was critical of China, not Pakistan (indeed, toward the end of her remarks, Wells made a pitch for more American investment in Pakistan).
Predictably, the speech was a bonanza for the Asia Program’s impact metrics. Based on a variety of measures—the number of viewers of the live stream, the number and frequency of tweets about the event, the number of views of the speech on the Wilson Center’s YouTube channel (several thousand a few days after the speech and more than 20,000 less than two weeks after it)—the attention directed to the event was greater than just about any other Asia Program product in recent memory.
The point here is not to brag about the Asia Program’s reach; rather, it is to highlight just how high-stakes and sensitive the CPEC project is for Beijing and Islamabad, and how seriously each capital takes the criticism of a senior U.S. official—and especially when that criticism is so pointed and direct.
And above all else, this story showcases the extent and intensity of the strategic rivalry between the world’s two most powerful nations—one that isn’t about to ease anytime soon.
Follow Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia, on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2019, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more