The U.S. took a different but equally strategic approach toward a third infrastructure development of strategic importance: China's building of a deep-water port at Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar.
CITIC Group, the Chinese state-owned lead investor, had initially proposed a $7.3 billion port complex which would have made Kyaukphyu as big as Southern California's massive Long Beach freight hub.
Some U.S. and Myanmar officials were concerned that Naypyidaw could be saddled with sizable debt for a project of questionable commercial viability as the Chinese proposal included loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Myanmar to finance its 15% stake. CITIC was to take 85%.
In response to a request from the National League for Democracy-led government, Washington's embassy in Yangon used funds from an existing U.S. Agency for International Development program to hire independent experts to conduct due diligence on the project.
They succeeded in downsizing the project to $1.3 billion and doubling Myanmar's equity participation to 30%, thus avoiding the need for borrowing from China. Going ahead on a smaller scale then greatly reduced concerns about potential repercussions.
These three efforts demonstrate that the U.S. and its allies can, when they focus imaginatively, offer countries in the region viable infrastructure options that reduce their dependence on Chinese investments.
They also highlight, however, that this process remains ad hoc and needs substantial improvement. For the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment to be successful, the U.S. and its partners must adopt a more systematic strategic approach.
This approach should include three components. First, the U.S. should build on its recent appointment of a global infrastructure coordinator at the State Department by moving that position to the White House. It should give the coordinator authority to bring together personnel from different agencies and ample staff of his or her own and provide a clear mandate to identify and pursue priority infrastructure projects aggressively.
Second, the U.S. must make better use of existing tools by bolstering the DFC's flexibility, requiring each embassy to assign an officer to identify potential projects and ensuring senior officials match Beijing's aggressive lobbying efforts.
Third, the U.S. infrastructure team should forge partnerships with private companies on specific infrastructure projects and redouble efforts to overcome the obstacles that have hindered cooperation with allies, including Japan, which on its own has achieved success on the infrastructure front, to co-finance and coordinate so as to avoid needless competition.
These recommendations will take commitment, political will and resourcing. But if Washington wants PGII to succeed, it will require the White House's strong commitment and a willingness to be nimble and creative in responding to opportunities.
The U.S. has made many promises in a variety of programs on global infrastructure development and consistently under-delivered. PGII must prove it can get things done.
James Carouso leads the advisory board to the Australia chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Scot Marciel is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center of Stanford University and a former U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, Indonesia and Myanmar. Both are senior advisers at strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia.