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As Montana’s Legislature wrangles over funding for infrastructure projects in the state, another battle looms over infrastructure funding at the global level. And unlike the state’s battle, the global contest carries implications for leadership in a rapidly changing world.

As America’s relations with our allies in Europe and elsewhere fray, other big players are taking advantage of the breach to strengthen their hand in global politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only meddling in European politics, much as he has in America’s, but he’s also working hard to expand Russia’s influence in the Middle East and Africa.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is also on the move. Unlike previous Chinese leaders, who shunned an active global role in favor of focusing on domestic economic reform and revival, Xi is boldly pushing China out into the world, even as he strengthens and modernizes China’s military capabilities.

A major component of Xi’s global outreach is his Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI seeks to create a new “China Silk Road,” building land and sea connections between countries in East and Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and even Europe. BRI is the most ambitious global infrastructure initiative in history.

Sixty countries so far have signed up to receive Chinese aid in building seaports, oil and gas pipelines, railways, highways and other infrastructure. Many of these countries badly need outside funding for critical infrastructure. But critics of the BRI initiative — including the Trump Administration — charge China with saddling poor countries with unsustainable debt and using the BRI to bolster China’s own industries and economy.

To be sure, America, Europe and other wealthy countries have long offered funding to countries unable to finance their own big projects. But those funds — offered directly or through such institutions as the World Bank — generally meet strict criteria aiming to assure that recipients can repay the loans and that funds are not diverted to corrupt purposes (not always easy goals to achieve).

China’s BRI funds mostly come with no strings attached, which can make them attractive to corrupt regimes or other countries that might not meet the strict criteria set by Western lenders. In addition, China often demands that Chinese labor, steel and other inputs be used in constructing infrastructure, which reduces the projects’ value to recipient countries.

President Xi recently visited Europe and met with leaders of Germany, France, Italy and the European Union. His charm offensive netted a big fish, when Italy became the first large western European country to sign onto the BRI. (Russia and Hungary also are signatories.) Chinese investors pledged to help Italy develop major ports, which will help goods — including Chinese exports — flow more quickly north into the heart of Europe.

Italy’s decision raised concerns that Xi is seeking to divide Europe in its approach to China and the unique challenges it poses to democratic, market-based economies.

Europe’s leaders are struggling, just as America’s are, with how to grapple with a country that is intricately woven into the world economy but which is dominated by state-owned companies and represents values that increasingly diverge from those that have prevailed throughout most of the post-World War II era.

President Xi is increasingly repressive at home, and China’s military is fortifying islets and rocky outcroppings in the East and South China Seas, challenging both America’s presence in Asia and neighboring Asian countries’ claims to those same islands and the natural resources in the surrounding sea-beds. Xi ignored an international tribunal’s ruling against China’s land grab.

The question is, does Xi aim to use the BRI as a benevolent means of fostering greater global integration and economic development, or is the BRI aimed more at bolstering a slowing Chinese economy and drawing recipient countries more tightly into China’s orbit? Most likely, it’s a combination of both motivations.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does global geopolitics. As America steps back from its traditional role as leader of the free world, Chinese President Xi continues his steady march toward expanding China’s global footprint.

It’s anyone’s guess how China’s and America’s roles in the world will evolve in the coming years, but one thing is certain: The global balance of power is shifting before our eyes.

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Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches periodically at the University of Montana.

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