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Tackling Cynicism in SE Asia Remains a Priority for BRI Development

Concerns over China's geopolitical intentions remain a challenge for Belt and Road projects in Southeast Asia.

Photo: High-speed rail: A test case for BRI readiness across Southeast Asia. (Shutterstock.com/nattapan72)
High-speed rail: A test case for BRI readiness across Southeast Asia.
Photo: High-speed rail: A test case for BRI readiness across Southeast Asia. (Shutterstock.com/nattapan72)
High-speed rail: A test case for BRI readiness across Southeast Asia.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has not moved quite as quickly in Southeast Asia as it has in South or Central Asia. This is partly down to ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, which have raised concerns among some countries in the region as to China's geopolitical intentions.

At present, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is caught between these concerns and a desire to enhance its already strong trade relations with China. Overall, there is a recognition that the region would benefit from BRI-driven investment, with the Asian Development Bank maintaining US$1 trillion needs to be spent on infrastructure development by 2020 just to maintain current growth levels.

Xue Li is the Director of International Strategy at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of World Economics and Politics. Outlining the challenge facing the BRI, he said: "We haven't done enough to attract countries in Southeast Asia. On the contrary, their level of fear and worry toward China seems to be rising."

For Southeast Asia, the Singapore-Kumming Rail Link is something of a test case. This high-speed link will run through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia, before terminating in Singapore, a total distance of more than 3,000km. To date, though, not everything is going the way China might have preferred.

In Laos, construction has been delayed. It is also likely that all of the work will have to be paid for by China, as Laos cannot afford the $7 billion required. In Thailand, meanwhile, negotiations have broken down. The Thais now want to build only part of the line – short of the border with Laos – and finance it themselves without Chinese involvement.

As to which company will build the Singapore-Malaysia stretch, that will be decided next year, with Chinese – as well as Japanese – firms emerging as the current frontrunners. Across the board, though, there is unhappiness at what is considered excessive demands and unfavorable financing conditions on the part of the Chinese. Back in 2014, Myanmar pulled out of the project, citing local concerns over the likely impact of the project.

A similar situation has now arisen in Indonesia. The $5.1 billion Jakarta-Bandung High-speed Railway Project, seen as an early success for the BRI, may now require significantly more funding. Indonesia is also unhappy at what it terms 'incursions' into its waters by Chinese fishing boats. It is, however, trying to downplay their significance as a 'maritime resource dispute' in a bid not to deter Chinese investment in the country. The Philippines is, by comparison, less conciliatory, largely because China is not one of its key trading partners. At present, the Philippines and Vietnam are the ASEAN nations most cynical with regards the ultimate intentions behind the BRI.

Singapore, a country with no direct stake in the South China Sea, remains strongly committed to the Initiative. In March this year, Chan Chun Sing, Minister in Prime Minister's Office, emphasised the importance of BRI as a means of improving links with China and its near neighbours.

He said: "The BRI represents a tremendous opportunity for businesses in Singapore – as well as in the wider Southeast Asian region – to work more closely with China. The more integrated China is with the region and the rest of the world, the greater the stake it will have in the success of the region. The more we are able to work together, the more it will bode well for the region and the global economy."

In line with this, this year has seen a number of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) signed between China and Singapore. Back in April, one such undertaking was signed between International Enterprise Singapore (IES) and the state-owned China Construction Bank. Under the terms of the memorandum, $30 billion is now available to companies from both countries involved with BRI projects. At present, the two organisations are in discussion with some 30 companies with regards to developments in the infrastructure and telecommunications sectors.

In June, an additional MOU was signed between IES and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. This has seen a further $90 billion earmarked to support Singapore companies engaged in BRI-related projects.

Ronald Hee, Special Correspondent, Singapore

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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