Here’s something to think about the next time you’re stuck in traffic on Interstate 81: The latest announcement by the federal government that it’s spending $9.3 billion to build a new four-lane highway through the Rust Belt.
The new road is part of an even larger economic development plan to rebuild the nation’s industrial heartland by more closely connecting two booming cities on the coasts. That, in turn, is part of an even bigger plan — the president’s overarching goal to challenge global trade patterns. Or, as some might say, to make the nation great again.
If you missed that news about the new super-highway, don’t feel bad. The odds are that you don’t read the newspaper that first reported the highway’s approval —Vedimosti, a Moscow-based business daily that functions as a Russian equivalent of The Wall Street Journal.
You see, the road in question is not across the American industrial heartland, but the Russian one, and the two booming cities it will help connect are Hamburg, Germany and Shanghai, China.
Why, you might ask, should we care about some highway on the other side of the world? The answer is that this road — called the Meridian Highway — illustrates two points that strike very close to home:
1. Global trade patterns are in flux, and not necessarily in ways that help the United States.
2. While a global leader in many aspects of technology, the United States is falling behind in other ways — infrastructure being one of them.
We get so focused on the politics of the moment — what the president tweeted this morning, what a freshman member of Congress tweeted this afternoon in response — that we often miss the big picture. This new road is part of the big picture. The real import of the Meridian Highway isn’t in Russia, but in China.
In 2013, China embarked on what it calls the “Belt and Road initiative” — a grand strategy to invest in infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe (and more recently even parts of South America and the Caribbean). We’re talking roads, railroads, ports, power plants, factories. The total cost has been estimated at upwards of $8 trillion but who really knows for sure? China is not a place where inquiring journalists get to file Freedom of Information Act requests. Why is China doing this? To build a global trading network that benefits Beijing.
A side note that’s particularly instructive: In dealing with its poorer neighbors to the south, China is doing exactly the opposite of what the United States is doing. China is investing in their economies — which helps them, but also helps China. Better to have prosperous neighbors than poor ones. A U.S. version of the “Belt and Road” wouldn’t involve building a border wall; instead, it would involve building stronger economies in Latin America so that its people don’t constantly try to flee north. China takes the long view; we are particularly short-sighted.
Russia is a junior partner in this Chinese effort. Russia’s history has always involved a push-and-pull between those who wanted Russia to become part of the West and those who saw Russia as a counterweight to the West. There was a moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it seemed the pro-Western forces would triumph. Instead, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to its anti-Western ways. Its participation in China’s Belt and Road project is part of that: If Russia can help facilitate closer economic ties between Europe and China, that helps pull Europe a little further away from the United States, which will only gladden hearts in the Kremlin.
The Meridian Highway helps check off both a geopolitical box and an economic one — the traffic it generates might also bring jobs to southern Russia, a part of the country sometimes called “Russia’s Rust Belt.” It currently takes 45 days to ship cargo by sea from Hamburg to Shanghai or vice versa. When the highway is completed in a dozen years or so, travel time is projected to be cut to 11 days. Suddenly deals that weren’t economically feasible before become profitable. This seems akin to how the Panama Canal changed trade patterns in North America in a previous century.
Now, China and Russia have a perfect right to take actions that benefit their own economies. We don’t begrudge them that. Indeed, the original proposal for this road came not from Beijing or Moscow but from Brussels — and the European Commission. Europe wants more trade with China and wants to cut shipping time and costs for the trade it already has. All around us, trade patterns are changing. The question for us is what we’re doing in response and whether we are sufficiently focused on the big picture. We’re not.
One of the first things President Trump did in office was to pull out of the proposed TransPacific Partnership trade deal. Was this is a “bad” trade deal? That’s a matter of debate. There are probably lots of details in there somebody would object to. But let’s look at the big picture: The purpose was to create a trading zone that included countries on both sides of the Pacific with one notable exception: China. Without the TPP, what’s happening? Many of those countries have since formed their own trade zone — without the United States. Others are forging trade deals with China. Either way, we have just cut ourselves out. How is that good for our economy? Neither is our neglect of our own infrastructure. Trump, on the night he was elected, declared that he would “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” In April, Trump and Democratic congressional leaders said they’d agreed on a $2 trillion plan. It’s not happening, though. You can blame whomever you like; there’s plenty of blame to go around. The bottom line, though, is we’re patching and filling, if that. In Virginia, we’ve been talking since the 1990s about upgrading Interstate 81. Not until this year did the General Assembly approve a funding plan that even supporters admit won’t go all that far — and some localities are trying to opt out of, which would reduce funding even further. In 1995, Congress declared the proposed Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia to be a “congressional high priority corridor.” The highway still hasn’t been built. The point is not whether we need an extra lane on I-81 or a new road through the coalfields — although those are good issues to raise. The point is that the world is changing and we’re not changing with it, at least not fast enough, and in the right ways. The Russians and Chinese are playing chess, and we’re not even playing checkers.