The Amador Convention Center, built by Chinese contractors, in Panama City. (AP)

The Amador Convention Center, built by Chinese contractors, in Panama City. (AP)

Explainer: B3W vs BRI in Latin America

By Hope Wilkinson

Washington’s Build Back Better World Initiative—still taking shape—seeks to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In June 2021, G7 partners announced the Build Back Better World Initiative, or B3W, which will provide an alternative for countries worldwide to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, known as the BRI, for infrastructure development. Latin America is the first region on the B3W’s radar. To that end, in September, U.S. officials completed a listening tour to Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama, with visits on deck to other regions before the initiative’s formal launch—expected to come in 2022.

The B3W is young in development, but, as the name reflects, it can be viewed as an international extension of the White House’s domestic Build Back Better project while providing an opposing option to Beijing’s global infrastructure goals. In 2000, Washington was the principal trade partner for every country in South America except for Paraguay. But, two decades later, China displaced it for the top spot in all South American countries except Ecuador and Suriname and is close on the United States’ heels in Colombia.

The rise of China’s economic influence in the region dates back before the BRI, with loan awards amounting to over $137 billion since 2005 from some of its top lenders—China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. (Despite this expansion, in 2020 neither bank provided new loans, but merger and acquisition deals from Beijing still increased, particularly in electricity infrastructure.) This dynamic shift is also marked by China’s recent application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the trade pact that replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the United States abandoned under the Trump administration.

Washington and allies say the B3W would offer a transparent alternative with anticorruption safeguards that differ from procedures laid out under the BRI, though details of B3W’s next steps are scant. But, with a U.S. delegation laying the groundwork for the program with this fall’s Latin America tour, AS/COA Online compares B3W aspirations to those of the BRI.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated the Belt and Road Initiative, using a name that harkens back to the famed Silk Road. Like the historic trade route, the BRI was originally intended to serve as a transcontinental network linking China to countries in Eurasia and Africa.

China expanded the BRI to Latin America and the Caribbean in 2017, when it inked a memorandum of understanding with Panama. Now, 19 Latin American countries are official participants. Some of the biggest countries in the region—Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico— are not members but have left the door open to joining in the future and increased their bilateral trade investments with China.

What is Build Back Better World?

President Joe Biden introduced B3W with support from the leaders of the G7 nations-Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom-during the group's June 2021 summit. B3W's main goal includes narrowing the more than $40 trillion gap in infrastructure investment needed by 2035 in the developing world. Financial allocations detailing how the B3W will close this economic gap are not yet outlined, but the funding of the initiative will be sourced from each of the G7 members' own development institutions and banks, bilateral and multilateral tools, private capital, and other international institutions.

As the initiative's leader, Washington committed to mobilizing finances from sources such as the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC), USAID, and the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The initiative will be organized by four areas of focus: climate, health, digital technology, and equality with an emphasis on gender.

U.S. officials chose Latin America for the first listening tour—a three-part trip dedicated to potential project development and negotiations with each country's officials, "given the proximity to the United States and our core interest there," said the delegation's leader, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Daleep Singh.


On the first stop in Colombia, the delegation met with President Iván Duque to discuss sustainability and Venezuelan migration. The U.S. delegation committed to two $8 million loan portfolios addressing these issues, alongside a similar investment dedicated to the agricultural sector. During the visit, previous DFC investments on reforestation were also discussed, with projects set to be launched in January 2022.

Colombia is not an official member of the Belt and Road Initiative, but its cooperation with China is picking up. Though Washington remains Bogotá's top trade partner overall, Beijing overtook the United States as the top import origin for Colombia, thanks to a 33 percent boost in imports from China during the first six months of the year. On the infrastructure side, in October 2019, two Chinese companies won a $3.9 billion bid to build the 9-million-strong city's long-awaited metro system. Development began in 2020, and the metro is scheduled to begin operations in 2028.


The U.S. delegation made its second stop in Ecuador, where they met with President Guillermo Lasso and key ministers, along with leaders of the country's private and civil society sectors. There, they announced a $150 million loan dedicated to sustainable, women-owned businesses. Additionally, the DFC allocated financing to support more sustainable projects and pandemic recovery.

As far as Quito-Beijing relations go, Ecuador committed to participating in the BRI in 2018. Some of the first projects aided northern areas of the country affected by a 2016 earthquake, with a $21 million loan for the reconstruction of the Eloy Alfaro Airport and multiple damaged bridges. Other projects included the construction of a highway using a loan of $148 million from the Export-Import Bank of China

By the end of 2018, Ecuador found itself $19 billion in debt to China for development projects. But, with some of the debt payable in oil, fluctuating oil prices led Quito to defer nearly $900 million in repayments to the Export-Import Bank of China and China Development Bank.

In January 2021, the DFC agreed to finance Ecuadoran infrastructure projects with as much as $2.8 billion, which could be used to "refinance predatory Chinese debt."


At the end of the tour, the U.S. delegation met President Laurentino Cortizo. In Panama, the nascent B3W project emphasized water access, digital inclusion, and transparency as priorities. While few specifics were released, infrastructural needs to promote a carbon-negative goal for the Panama Canal were also discussed. In April, the Canal Authority committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

Panama was the first country in Latin America to formally join the BRI, and it did so in 2017, five months after the country switched its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. A year later, the two countries signed 19 bilateral agreements, including plans to establish a new Latin American headquarters for the China Development Bank in the country, banking, energy, and infrastructure.

Some projects have been canceled or downsized, such as a high-speed train stretching from Panama City to David, a city bordering Costa Rica. Another plan included construction of a set of transnational electricity lines, but the Panamanian energy authority canceled the project in May 2020 in light of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the digital sector has offered a space for expansion, given that Beijing telecom giant Huawei uses Panama as a regional distribution center. Huawei is also designing a so-called digital free-trade zone, involving a $38 million endeavor that entails a warehouse outside of Panama City with involvement from nearly 100 companies in product distribution, as well as cloud computing services.

Sophia Mancilla contributed to this article.