More than five years have lapsed since the announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road by President Xi Jinping in 2013. This paper looks into the China led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which continues to gain momentum, for instance today witnessing interest amongst some of the European nations. Southeast Asia given its geography as well as in terms of new economic opportunities remains crucial for this Chinese led initiative. The ASEAN states are part of the BRI, given the enormous economic opportunities it presents for them. While laying out the broad agenda of the BRI in Southeast Asia, some concerns have emerged that challenge the futility of the initiative.
China’s BRI Agenda in Southeast Asia
According to Figure one, the Sea Route under the BRI also defined as the “One Road” or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route, covers the entire region of Southeast Asia. One route starts from the eastern coast of China into Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The other route begins from China’s coast and traverses through the South China Sea to East Indonesia. This would enable China to attain not only transit but also make inroads into the markets in Africa and Europe through Southeast Asia. The cumulative investment of four trillion dollars under the BRI spanning over the course of the next three decades would help expand China’s access into Eurasia and Europe, while also deepening ties with its economic partners in South and Southeast Asia.1
Figure One: The Land and Sea Routes under the BRI
Source: “Our Bulldozers, Our Rules: China’s Foreign Policy could Reshape a good part of the world Economy”, The Economist, July 2, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/china/21701505-chinas-foreign-policy-could-reshape-good-part-world-economy-our-bulldozers-our-rules
This initiative is also aimed at securing China’s energy needs from the hydrocarbon rich nations in Central Asia and Southeast Asia with whom China already has established energy trade links and is in process of establishing new energy deals. Until 1993, China was self sufficient in terms of its energy demand. However, the rapid economic modernisation and growth that witnessed a spike in demand in the 1990s along with a stagnant domestic supply saw China transforming itself from a net exporter to a net importer of energy resources. The highly contested energy sources in West Asia already dominated by Western oil conglomerates, made it difficult for China to secure oil and gas fields. Therefore, China looked towards countries in Southeast Asia and Africa where Western countries companies could not establish their business due to the imposition of sanctions.2 The Chinese position is that while it has been moving from being an oil surplus to oil deficit economy it has been trying to develop an external oil strategy that has much in common with the Japanese model. In 1998, the China National Petroleum Corporation was restructured into a group of joint companies and became active participants on the world energy scene. Chinese entities such as Petro China, SINOPEC Corp., and CNOOC Ltd. have all made initiatives towards the exploration and development at various global energy hotspots, and today Chinese companies are operating in some thirty countries across the globe.3
Through the BRI, China intends to establish an efficient energy corridor from its sources in Central Asia and Southeast Asia to its manufacturing bases in China. In 2017, the Myanmar-China Crude oil pipeline was operationalised. The pipeline has enabled China to import crude oil from West Asia and Africa without having to ship through the Strait of Malacca and into the South China Sea. As shown in figure two, the oil pipeline which is part of the BRI’s infrastructure and trade development plan helps the transport of oil to the manufacturing bases in Kunming located in the Yunnan province of China, through the offloading of its tankers in the Western Myanmar town of Kyaukphyu located in the Rakhine State.
Figure Two: Myanmar-China Oil Pipeline
Source: “Myanmar Pipeline gives China Faster Supply of Oil from Middle East”, South China Morning Post, April 12, 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2086837/myanmar-pipeline-gives-china-faster-supply-oil-middle-east
Southeast Asia in the BRI Framework
Southeast Asia’s Top Leaders attending the Second BRI Forum in Beijing on April 27, 2019
The recently concluded Second Belt and Road Forum held from April 26, 2019, at Beijing indicated that more countries are opening up to the idea of the BRI at a time when there is growing erosion of the global international trade system. The nations of Southeast Asia remain a key element of the BRI and despite their concerns see it as a necessity towards supporting a multilateral trading agenda. This was evident given the fact that all of the ASEAN nations expect Indonesia – due to the ongoing Presidential elections – had their top leaders attending the second forum of the BRI. Despite frictions stemming from the South China Sea and lingering concerns over the debt tally of BRI projects, Southeast Asian governments remain keen on the project.4 Some of the ongoing projects in the region which were being supported by Chinese led investments were integrated and made part of the infrastructure and connectivity plans under the BRI framework.
Figure Three: Total BRI Projects in ASEAN Nations USD bn
Source: Jinny Yan, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia”, in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Southeast Asia, October 2018, http://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/Assets/Documents/reports/LSE-IDEAS-China-SEA-BRI.pdf
The bar diagram in figure three indicates the total value of investment on projects under the BRI in Southeast Asia. The data indicates that Indonesia has been the highest recipient in terms of capital inflows with US $ 171.1 billion, followed by Vietnam with US $ 151.1 billion. Most of the Southeast Asian nations in particular Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, remain highly connected with China in terms of trade. The largest sum of investment under the BRI in Southeast Asia is in the transport and logistics sector followed by investment in the energy related sectors. Under transport and logistics, there is huge BRI investment in the railway sector. Some of these are the Kuala Lumpur-Kota Bahru Rail estimated to cost US $ 14 .3 billion, the Preah Vihear-Kaoh Kong Railway in Cambodia estimated at US $ 9.6 billion, the Vietnam-Boten Railway Project with investment of US $ 5.8 billion. There is also the US $ 7.3 billion Kyaukpyu Deep Sea Port construction in Myanmar. In the energy sector, there is the China General Nuclear which has made a US $ 5.9 billion investment in Malaysia, and Chinese energy entity Zhejiang Hengyi which has invested US $ 3.4 billion in Brunei’s oil sector.5Overall, the scale of infrastructure development and connectivity projects under the BRI has been well received by nations in Southeast Asia. Engagements of some of the Southeast Asian nations in the BRI are discussed as follows.
President Xi Jinping during his visit to Jakarta in 2013 introduced his signature plan before the Indonesian legislature. Indonesia which sits between the ancient maritime trade route between East and West is crucial for the BRI. Since President Yudhoyono (2004–2014) and the current President Jokowi there has been much emphasis on infrastructure development with public-private partnership, which included both domestic and foreign partners.6After taking over office in 2014, President Jokowi announced his Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) doctrine at the East Asia Summit on November 13, 2014. The BRI complemented the GMF, which sought towards developing Indonesia’s maritime infrastructure. As data in figure three indicates, Indonesia given its emphasis on infrastructure development has been one of the major recipients of capital inflows amongst the ASEAN states. In March 2019, a Senior Minister of Indonesia stated that there is a proposal for 28 projects worth US $ 91.1 billion with Chinese investors as part of its participation in the BRI. Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister, Luhut Pandjaitan said that the government would offer those projects, which include seaports and industrial estates, power plants, smelters and tourism estates. According to the Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) chairman, Thomas "Tom" Lembong, these projects would take place in four locations; namely North Sumatra, North Kalimantan, North Sulawesi and Bali. The four locations, he said, were chosen because they all sit on the periphery of the archipelago, coinciding with President Jokowi's ambition to develop the country from the outer areas.7
Another major recipient of investment from the BRI has been Vietnam, which has endorsed the developmental agenda of the initiative. Vietnam stands to benefit from the BRI due to its growing demand for infrastructure investments to fuel the country’s growth. Ever since the launch of its economic reform programme- the DoiMoi initiative has helped propel Vietnam’s economy. From a growth of 2.7 percent in 1986 Vietnam’s economic reform helped push the GDP to an average of 6 percent growth that continues till today, and despite a slight decline during the Asian financial crisis in 1998, the growth has remained stable. This sustained and high economic growth witnessed in Vietnam has enabled its poverty level to fall from 75 percent three decades back to roughly 9.8 percent.8According to some estimates, Vietnam requires US $ 605 billion from 2016-2040, towards its infrastructural development that includes roads, rail, airports, telecoms, electricity, and water. Vietnam due to the tightening in its financial and legal regulations is experiencing budgetary constraints. Therefore Vietnam has been seeking the BRI as an alternative source towards funding its developmental requirements.9
Thailand, which is currently pursuing foreign investment for its ambitious US $ 45billion Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development plan, sees the BRI as a great opportunity. In the late 1980s, Thailand’s booming economy helped revive the idea of the ‘golden peninsula’ by Thailand’s Prime Minister (PM) Chatchai Choonhavan. The intent behind this was to make Thailand function as the economic hub of Southeast Asia. Connectivity in terms of highways, air, and sea transport remains critical as given in Thailand’s infrastructure plan (2015-2022).10 Further, the conclusion of the multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiation in the near future would provide new opportunities for Thailand. Thailand being located at the centre of Southeast Asia becomes an important link for all means of connectivity. Thailand has potential to become a major logistic hub in which enhancement of its physical infrastructure becomes a pre-requisite.11
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) waves beside Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha as they ride a train during a ceremony to connect the railway line between Cambodia and Thailand in Banteay Meanchey province on April 22, 2019
under the BRI framework. Thailand is currently part of the High Speed Railway (HSR) line between Nong Khai in northeast Thailand and Vientiane in Laos connecting them to Kunming in China’s Southern Yunnan Province. There is also the construction of a 120 km canal across the Kra Isthmus. This Isthmus is the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand which prevents the passage of mid-sized commercial ships along the Mekong River. The BRI would be one of the major sources towards financing Thailand’s EEC, which the Thai PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha has positioned as the fulcrum of the nation's future economic growth. Speaking to the media at the sidelines of the second Belt and Road Forum in April 2019, PM Prayuth stated that, "Once the BRI is complete, it will allow great connectivity into Thailand, and the EEC, which will be a core economic and industrial part of Thailand, so prosperity will spread across the country and across ASEAN”.12
The Sino-Philippines relations have been witnessing a dramatic change under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. Both nations have seemed to put into past the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, moved by the Philippines, which challenged China’s historical claims to the South China Sea. The ruling given by the tribunal dismissed China’s claim to the 80 percent of the South China Sea, which was based on its nine dash line and included various reefs and islands. China was also held accountable for disrupting the other Southeast Asian nations’ freedom of navigation rights by asserting its territorial claims as well as destroying the marine diversity such as corals while building its artificial islands and air strips in the contested sites.13 The group of eminent international lawyers that made up the tribunal for hearing the case stated that, China’s historical claims to the South China Sea does not hold valid due to lack of evidence which indicate its historical claims given under its ‘nine-dash line’.14
Since the ruling, relations between the Philippines and China have been on a positive trajectory with the Philippines taking part at the first BRI forum in May 2017. It also became a full member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in order to attract investment into developing its infrastructure. Under the BRI, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that focuses on developing ports is of interest for the Philippines. The sea transit routes through the Maritime Silk Road would be complemented by the series of railway and road networks which would be build through the Silk Road Economic Belt. Thus, together the belt and the road under the BRI would create new links for trade between Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas. Given the geography of the Philippines, the Maritime Silk Road projects under the BRI provide huge opportunities in areas such as port infrastructure development. By 2017, thirteen bilateral cooperation agreements were signed between the China and Philippines, with US $ 24 billion worth of Chinese funding and investment being pledged.15 During the visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping to the Philippines from 20-21 November, 2018, both nations established aComprehensive Strategic Cooperation. The joint statement after President Xi’s meeting with President Duterte saw the conclusion of 29 agreements which also included joint oil and gas exploration and with China being asked to get involved in Duterte’s signature US $ 180 billion “Build, Build, Build”, infrastructure programme.16
Challenges for the BRI in Southeast Asia
There have been some resistance to the various BRI projects due to fear of debt servicing, loss of sovereign rights to Chinese companies, unfair financial and contract terms, and lack of local raw materials and workers being hired by Chinese companies for the various projects.17 Under former PM Najib, Malaysia became one of the top investment destinations for projects linked to China’s trillion dollar BRI. However, when the new government led by Mahathir Bin Mohamad assumed office following the general election held on May 9, 2018, it began revisiting some of the infrastructure development and connectivity deals singed under the BRI, in order to reduce the national debt. The administration cancelled or deferred some US$23 billion worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies by the previous government.18
Construction of the 688 km-long East Coast Railway Link part of the BRI
In July 2018, Malaysia suspended the construction of the 688 km-long East Coast Railway Link (ECRL). This is part of China’s BRI that aims to connect the Straits of Malacca to the Northeast peninsular region of Malaysia. The project which cost over US $20 billion was suspended by the new Mahathir government which took over Office in May 2019. The new Malaysian government began to re-negotiate the terms of the original agreement with China in order to reduce the cost of the project that was signed under the previous Najib government.19 Following months of negotiations between Malaysia and China, in April 2019, both sides reached an agreement in order to resume the project whose construction was put on halt. According to a statement from the Malaysian PM’s office, the new agreement managed to reduce the cost of the ECRL project to US $ 10.7 billion. Further, the length of the railway line under the project has also been reduced to 648 km from the original 688 km.20 The Malaysian government in September 2018 also cancelled three pipeline projects with China which included two oil and gas pipelines costing more than US$1 billion each and pipeline to link the state of Melaka to a refinery and petrochemical plant in the state of Johor.21
The Malaysian case is not the only one, since there have also been concerns over the BRI in the other ASEAN states such as Vietnam. While Vietnam has expressed its formal support for the BRI because of the reason mentioned above, it remains cautious about the economic, political, and strategic implications of this initiative. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang welcomed the BRI when he attended the first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017. President Quang emphasised that cooperation under the BRI must ensure “sustainability, effectiveness and inclusiveness, openness, mutual respect and benefits, and compliance with the UN Charter and international law”.22 While the Sino-Vietnamese relations have since early 1990 matured into a normalised relationship with China and Vietnam also establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in March 2013, the mutual confidence between the two countries has not been fully restored.23 Tensions between Vietnam and China over the Paracel and Spartly Islands in the South China Sea has intensified in recent years, followed by the 2014 oil rig crisis, which has led to a rising anti-China sentiment in Vietnam. China has been willing to fund projects in Vietnam that includes steel mills, coal-fired power plants, high speed railways and highways, and so on. However, Vietnam remains cautious on taking loans from China and has been resorting to securing fundings from other sources such as from international financial institutions and Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) partners in Japan. Vietnam prefers Japanese contractors and technologies as they are perceived by the Vietnamese as being more trustworthy in comparison to the ones from China. This cautious approach of Vietnam towards China has been a factor in limiting the implementation of the BRI.24
Other major projects under the BRI which include more than two parties such as the China-Thailand- Laos High Speed Railway (HSR) railway line is also facing challenges, particularly in the Thailand section of the HSR. While there have been issues pertaining to land procurement as well as the commercial viability of the project, the delay has also been caused due to the disagreements over the terms of the loan set out by the EXIM Bank of China.25 In the case of the Philippines there is criticism on the BRI’s Maritime Silk Road projects. According to writings from the Philippines’s Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies, the Philippine involvement in the BRI’s port infrastructure development would face issues with regards to the implementation given the logistical, political, and financial challenges that prevails in the within. The Centre has argued that Philippines need to undertake a comprehensive check before commencing the various port projects under the BRI. This caution has been advised given that a number of port development projects under the BRI in other countries are facing difficulties in terms of implementation as well as inability towards their debt obligations to the Chinese institutions.26
The paper provides an overall picture of Southeast Asia in terms of the ongoing and proposed BRI’s infrastructure development and connectivity projects. All the ASEAN states are formally part of the BRI, despite persisting issues with China, which indicates a dichotomy in the relations. However, it must also be realised that the BRI provides enormous opportunities for many of the ASEAN states and would help in realising their move towards establishing the ASEAN Economic Community. Further, China is the major trading partner for most of the ASEAN states with whom they share a robust economic relation making the BRI a natural progression in their partnership. While challenges exist in the implementation of the various projects under the BRI, it also stems from domestic structural weaknesses that prevail within the individual ASEAN states. Given the ongoing challenge to the existing multilateral trading regime for nations in Southeast Asia as well as for China, the realisation of the BRI becomes even more important. Today, more than five years have lapsed since the announcement of the BRI and given the geography, economic, and strategic significance of Southeast Asia, along with all the ASEAN States participating in the BRI, the recent years have witnessed lesser hostility and more cooperation between ASEAN States and China.
This in turn has created room for dialogue to address issues such as the South China Sea where both sides are working on establishing a Code of Conduct (COC), which, it is hoped, will lead to enduring peace in the region.
*The Author, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi..
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
1“Our Bulldozers, Our Rules: China’s Foreign Policy could Reshape a good part of the world Economy”, The Economist, July 2, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/china/21701505-chinas-foreign-policy-could-reshape-good-part-world-economy-our-bulldozers-our-rules, accessed on May 15, 2019.
2Namrata Panwar, Working Draft for BISA Conference 2009, titled “India and China Competing over Myanmar Energy Resources”, December 2009, https://www.bisa.ac.uk/index.php%3Foption%3Dcom_bisa%26task%3Ddownload_paper%26no_html%3D1%26passed_paper_id%3D125+&cd=6&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=in, accessed on February 7, 2017.
3Tatsu Kambara and Christopher Howe, China and the Global Energy Crisis: Development and Prospects for China’s Oil and Natural Gas, (Edward Elgar Publishing Limited: Cheltenham, 2007), p: 121-122.
4Shannon Tiezzi, “Who Is (and Who Isn’t) Attending China’s 2nd Belt and Road Forum”, The Diplomat, April 26, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/who-is-and-who-isnt-attending-chinas-2nd-belt-and-road-forum/, accessed on May 17, 2019.
5Jinny Yan, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia”, in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Southeast Asia, October 2018, http://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/Assets/Documents/reports/LSE-IDEAS-China-SEA-BRI.pdf, accessed on May 20, 2019.
6Jacqueline Hicks, “Political sensitivities surround the BRI in Indonesia”, Asia Dialogue, January 30, 2019, https://theasiadialogue.com/2019/01/30/political-sensitivities-surround-the-bri-in-indonesia/, accessed on May 29, 2019.
7“Indonesia to propose projects worth US$91 billion for China's Belt and Road”, The Straits Times, March 20, 2019, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesia-to-propose-projects-worth-us91-bilion-for-chinas-belt-and-road, accessed on May 29, 2019.
8Suranjan Das, Tridib Chakraborti, and Subhadeep Bhattacharya, Indo-Vietnam Relations in the Emerging Global Order, (Knowledge World Publishers Pvt Ltd: New Delhi, 2018), p. 25-28.
9Le Hong Hiep, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Vietnam: challenges and prospects”, ISEAS, Newsletter 81 Autum 2018, https://iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/belt-road-initiative-vietnam-challenges-prospects, accessed on May 20, 2019.
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11JuthiphandChirathivat and Kornkarun Cheewatrakoolpong, “Thailand’s Economic Integration with Neighbouring countries and Possible Connectivity with South Asia”, Working Paper Series No: 520 (April 2015), Asian Development Bank Institute, https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/159839/adbi-wp520.pdf, accessed on May 2, 2018.
12David Green, “Thailand pushes China's Belt and Road despite differing visions”, Nikkei Asian Review, May 2, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Belt-and-Road/Thailand-pushes-China-s-Belt-and-Road-despite-differing-visions, accessed on May 23, 2019.
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15Darlene V. Estrada, “The Belt and Road Initiative and Philippine Participation in the Maritime Silk Road”, Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Foreign Service Institute,Republic of Philippines Vol IV, No 7, April 2017, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/the-belt-and-road-initiative-and-philippine-participation-in-the-maritime-silk-road/, accessed on May 31, 2019.
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17Tan Sri Munir Majid, “Conclusion- If Truly Collaborative the BRI can Work for All”, in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Southeast Asia, October 2018, http://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/Assets/Documents/reports/LSE-IDEAS-China-SEA-BRI.pdf, accessed on May 20, 2019.
18Nile Bowie, “Mahathir puts Uighur rights above China ties”,Asia Times, October 16, 2018, https://www.asiatimes.com/2018/10/article/mahathir-puts-uighur-rights-above-china-ties/, accessed on May 29, 2019.
19“Malaysia halts construction of $20bn East Coast Railway Link project”,Railway Technology, July 6, 2018, https://www.railway-technology.com/news/malaysia-halts-construction-20bn-east-coast-railway-link-project/, accessed on May 29, 2019.
20“Malaysia and China sign deal to resume East Coast Rail Link”, Railway Technology, April 15, 2019, https://www.railway-technology.com/news/malaysia-and-china-sign-deal-to-resume-east-coast-rail-link/, accessed on May 29, 2019.
21“Malaysia finally scraps three China-backed pipelines”, The Straits Times, September 11, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/malaysia-finally-scraps-three-china-backed-pipelines, accessed on September 11, 2018.
22Le Hong Hiep, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Vietnam: challenges and prospects”, ISEAS, Newsletter 81 Autum 2018, https://iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/belt-road-initiative-vietnam-challenges-prospects, accessed on May 20, 2019.
23Tridib Chakraborti, “Rising India-Vietnam Ties in the Emerging Security Architecture of the Asia-pacific Region”, in in Rajiv K Bhatia, Vijay Sakhuja, and VikashRanjan (ed), India-Vietnam; Agenda for Strengthening Partnership, (Shipra Publication: New Delhi, 2013), p. 104-105.
24Le Hong Hiep, “The Belt and Road Initiative in Vietnam: challenges and prospects”, ISEAS, Newsletter 81 Autum 2018, https://iias.asia/the-newsletter/article/belt-road-initiative-vietnam-challenges-prospects, accessed on May 20, 2019.
25David Green, “Thailand pushes China's Belt and Road despite differing visions”, Nikkei Asian Review, May 2, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Belt-and-Road/Thailand-pushes-China-s-Belt-and-Road-despite-differing-visions, accessed on May 23, 2019.
26Darlene V. Estrada, “The Belt and Road Initiative and Philippine Participation in the Maritime Silk Road”, Centre for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Foreign Service Institute, Republic of Philippines Vol IV, No 7, April 2017, http://www.fsi.gov.ph/the-belt-and-road-initiative-and-philippine-participation-in-the-maritime-silk-road/, accessed on May 31, 2019.