In peacetime, one can always judge the confidence and creative genius of a superpower by how well it is able to design and pull off, so-called megaprojects. A megaproject is simply defined as “a very large, expensive, or ambitious business project”. It is these projects which can help to define regions and entire nations for decades and often centuries to come.
From the Roman aqueducts to the Soviet Union’s GOELRO plan, which helped bring electricity to all quarters of the modern world’s largest state, successful megaprojects showcase a nation’s ability to create unique problem solving initiatives, while also giving states an opportunity to psychologically reinforce a sense of accomplishment outside of the battle field. The successful completion of a megaproject can fill a nation with the same sense of vigour as winning a war and the best part is that cooperative megaprojects are a way of maintaining both internal peace and peace among states.
Today, the world’s most prominent megaproject is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a series of modern roads, railways, power stations (including for green energy), metrolines, agricultural development, scientific infrastructure, shipping ports (including the Panamax port at Gwadar) and airports which will not only help link China and Pakistan, but form a key set of arteries along One Belt–One Road. In many ways, while One Belt–One Road has both psychical/logical elements as well as geopolitical/diplomatic elements, it helps to think of the entire project as the largest megaproject in modern history, just as sure as the ancient east-west silk roads which inspired the modern project were megaprojects of their eras.
While many in the US are squarely focused on a China-US rivalry, if such a thing exists, one must measure the countries by the standards of how successfully they can pull off a megaproject. Clearly, CPEC is not only China’s largest of many megaprojects, but it is the largest in modern history, dwarfing even the Suez and Panama canals in size, scope and long-term planning. When one views all of the megaprojects that encompass One Belt–One Road as a whole, it becomes clear just how history changing China’s flagship multilateral policy is.
While in the early 20th century, the world marvelled at America’s bridges, highways, skyscrapers and railways, in the 21st century, is the US still capable of pulling off a megaproject?
The last major megaproject on US soil took place in one of North America’s oldest urban areas, the Atlantic coast city of Boston. The Central Artery/Tunnel Project, more commonly known as The Big Dig, was an ambitious plan to transform Boston’s mid-century highways into a series of tunnels which would seamlessly transport people and goods below the surface of the city, while also directly linking the city centre to Logan International Airport for the first time in history.
One of the most visually impactful changes to the city that the Big Dig created was the removal of the unsightly and congested “Central Artery” from the middle of Boston. A towering set of elevated road bridges that cut the city in half was to be demolished and replaced by underground tunnels which would free the city of pollution and a much hated eyesore.
Unlike mid-century projects in the US, most notably the highways in and around New York city created by Robert Moses, the Big Dig was intended to create a “win-win” model where goods and people could be moved around a dense urban area with ease, while freeing city streets and centres from traffic, all the while restoring unity among communities divided by giant metal bridges, as was typical of Moses’ projects which were as spectacular as they were reviled by many locals.
While first proposed in the 1970s, it was not until the 1991 that construction began. The project was initially welcomed by locals, but a series of scandals has marred the legacy of America’s last great megaproject. Multiple leaks in the sidewalls of the tunnels combined with collapsing ceilings and falling light fixtures, made many question the efficacy of such a project, not least because it ran over time and over budget, even though those problems have all been solved after much trial and error.
Today, the Big Dig is part of Boston’s everyday life and in many ways, the fact that such a project had as few accidents as it did during its construction and early stages of use, is itself quite a feat. Throughout the project not a single existing bridge, highway, metroline or railway was closed, thus making a complex construction project even more demanding on the part of engineers and master builders.
While ultimately, the Big Dig has largely delivered on transforming the way Bostonians travel and receive their goods, the attitude of people in the US towards the Big Dig is one that is thoroughly depressing to anyone who admires megaprojects.
Many in the US continue to question whether The Big Dig was worth it, as there are common accusations that everyone who participated in the project was involved in corruption, dishonesty and graft. Still, some claim that things were better the way they were before, in spite of the fact that large parts of the city have been opened up to new park-space.
By contrast, in Pakistan and China, CPEC which is not even fully complete, is already seen as a triumph of ingenuity, fortitude, imagination and win-win bilateral cooperation. Likewise, while the Big Dig saw local and state politicians turning on one another and the US federal government rowing with both local and state officials all at once, CPEC has managed to enhance long-standing bonds between Pakistan and China and in doing so, has linked the Pacific with the Indian Ocean as part of a large scale partnership to bring peace through prosperity to over a billion people.
While many point to the uneasy partnerships between US public and private sectors which rarely see eye to eye as a reason for America falling out of love with megaprojects, there is a spirit of defeatism throughout the political classes in the US which hardly even tries to create inventive political solutions that could help make megaprojects happen in the 21st century.
While China and her partners like Pakistan embrace the hard work and intensive dialogue that are necessary in order to assure the completion of a successful megaproject, the US appears to have given up, taking an attitude that rests on past achievements combined with a luddite view of contemporaneity projects.
When it comes to having the optimism, fortitude and imagination necessary to pull off megaprojects, one must now look to China and her partners. The US can blame China all it wants for its own national decline, but in reality, China has not forced the US to give up – the US has given up without a fight and through no fault of any foreign power.
While the US is busy digging itself into a hole of its own making, One Belt–One Road and CPEC in particular demonstrates that the modern geopolitical model for enhanced inter-connectivity, is not only breaking new ground but it is shattering ancient barriers. This represents a genuine win-win for all involved.