China’s globe-spanning infrastructure initiative is shrinking. The rhetoric at the second Belt and Road Forum, being held in Beijing this week, has been less triumphalist — and new plans for roads, pipelines, bridges and rail lines more modest — than at the first: on Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged high standards and “zero tolerance” for corruption in the programme. Unfortunately for the US and its allies, though, a downsized programme could pose more, not less of a competitive threat to the West. Until now, most worries about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have focused on its size and those weak standards. The sheer volume of the supposedly multi-trillion-dollar initiative looked impossible to match. Meanwhile, a corrosive combination of debt, corruption and privileged access for Chinese companies threatened to lure or coerce countries away from the US orbit and into China’s. In many ways, though, this model always contained the seeds of its own failure. The emphas...

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