There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published in April 2018 by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos, and Djibouti) where the level of debts are unsustainable.
Apart from the red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka has also resulted in problems with the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries is drawing more attention.
The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir, alluded to China’s trade relations with poorer countries as ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over $20 billion (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link, as well as two gas pipelines).
Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.
Italy to join BRI Continue reading
A survey titled, ‘State of Southeast Asia: 2019’ conducted by the ASEAN Studies Centre (between November 18 and December 5, 2018 and released on January 7, 2019) at the think-tank Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute came up with some interesting findings. The sample size of the survey was over 1,000 and consisted of policy makers, academics, business persons, and members of civil society from the region.
It would be fair to say that some of the findings of the survey were along expected lines. Some of the key points highlighted are as follows:
According to the survey, China’s economic clout and influence in South East Asia is steadily rising, and it is miles ahead of other competitors. Even in the strategic domain, Washington’s influence pales in comparison to that of Beijing’s. As far as economic influence in South East Asia is concerned, a staggering 73 percent of respondents subscribed to the view that China does not have much competition. A strong reiteration of this point is the level of bilateral trade between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which comfortable surpassed $500 billion in 2017. After China, it is not the US, but ASEAN which has maximum economic clout in the region. If one were to look at the strategic and political sphere, 45% of respondents opined that China is the most influential player in South East Asia, followed by the US at 30 percent.
Second, China’s increasing influence does not imply that it is popular in South East Asia. In fact, a large percentage of the respondents expressed the opinion that China’s lack of integration with global institutions is not a very positive omen. South East Asian nations also have clear reservations with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 50% of respondents believed that the project would increase ASEAN countries dependence upon China, and there were serious apprehensions, with one third of respondents raising question marks with regard to the transparency of the project. A small percentage of respondents (16%) also felt that the BRI was bound to fail. Many ASEAN countries have been alluding to some of the shortcomings of the BRI, of course none was as vocal as Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad. In the survey, respondents from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines expressed the view that their countries should be cautious with regard to the BRI. Interestingly, even respondents from Cambodia, a country where China has made significant inroads, Japan is the most trusted country and not China.
Third, US isolationism, especially under Trump, has led to an increasing disillusionment with Washington DC in the region. The current administration has been aggressive on China, and it has sought to take forward former US President Barack Obama’s vision of ‘Pivot to Asia’ in the form of the Indo-Pacific Narrative. Senior voices within the Trump Administration, including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been trying to give a push to the Indo-Pacific Narrative and reaching out to South East Asian Countries. In July for instance, while addressing the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Pompeo said that the US was going to invest $113 million in new U.S. initiatives in areas like the digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo also stated that these funds were a ‘down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’. Pompeo’s address was followed by a visit to South East Asia (Singapore and Indonesia), where he met with leaders from a number of ASEAN countries.
On December 31, 2018, the US also signed the ARIA (Asia Reassurance Initiative Act), which sought to outline increased US economic and security involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. ARIA has flagged US concerns with regard to China’s expansionist tendencies in South East Asia. Other key strategic issues, such as nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, have also been highlighted.
The Trump Administration has also earmarked $1.5 billion for a variety of programs in East and South East Asia.
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) led to a lot of disappointment in the region, with allies like Singapore putting forward their views. Speaking at the ANZ Forum in November 2018, Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Thong stated:
…It is still a superpower but it has become less benign and generous. Its unilateral actions in many areas have hurt allies, friends and rivals alike […] America First is diminishing the global stature, moral leadership and influence of the US.
This view was also echoed by a number of experts who commented on the finding of the survey.
The Former Singapore PM also made the point that Asia needed to recalibrate its policies in order to adjust to the new world order.
What is clearly evident is that ASEAN needs to build a new vision which is in sync with the changing geopolitical situation. While Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad, by scrapping Chinese projects and referring to a new sort of colonialism emerging out of China’s BRI project, has taken an important step in this direction, it remains to be seen whether other countries in the region can also play their role in helping ASEAN weave its own narrative. For a long time now, countries have been dependent upon both the US and China, and have thought in terms of choices, but there has never really been a concerted effort to create an independent narrative.
What ASEAN actually needs is a narrative where it does not shy away from taking an independent stance, and where it is also willing to take a stand on issues of global relevance. One such issue is the Rohingya Issue. Apart from Malaysia and Indonesia, none of the other members of ASEAN has taken a clear stand. In the past, many ASEAN countries thought that they could refrain from commenting on contentious issues. Respondents to the survey felt that ASEAN states should be more involved in the Rohingya Issue.
The United States and other countries which are wary of Chinese influence should come up with a feasible alternative. So far, while members of the Trump Administration have repeatedly raised the red flag with regard to China’s hegemonic tendencies, and predatory economics as has been discussed earlier, it has not made the required commitment. While the Trump Administration has not been able to pose a serious challenge to Beijing, it remains to be seen if the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act is effective.
It is also important for Washington, and other countries, not to look at Chinese involvement from a zero-sum approach. Perhaps it is time to adopt a more pragmatic and far sighted approach. If Japan and China can work together in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other important infrastructural initiatives in South East Asia, and India and China can work together in capacity-building projects in Afghanistan, the possibility of US and China finding common ground in South East Asia should not be totally ruled out. Amidst all the bilateral tensions, recent conversation between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and statements emanating from both sides are encouraging.
An isolationist Washington DC and a hegemonic Beijing are certainly not good news, not just for ASEAN, but for other regions as well. The survey has outlined some of the key challenges for ASEAN, but it is time now to look for solutions. Hopefully, countries within the region will shape an effective narrative, and be less dependent upon the outside world. The survey is important in highlighting some broad trends but policy makers in Washington as well as South East Asia need to come up with some pragmatic solutions to ensure that Beijing does not have a free run.
On December 13, 2018, US National Security Advisor John Bolton, while speaking at the Heritage Foundation, highlighted the key aims and objectives of ‘Prosper Africa,’ which shall probably be announced at a later date. The emphasis of this policy, according to Bolton, would be on countering China’s exploitative economics unleashed by the Belt and Road Initiative, which leads to accumulation of massive debts and has been dubbed as ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. A report published by the Centre for Global Development (CGD) (2018) examined this phenomenon while looking at instances from Asia as well as Africa.
During the course of his speech, Bolton launched a scathing attack on China for its approach towards Africa. Said the American NSA:
bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.
Bolton, apart from attacking China, accused Russia of trying to buy votes at the United Nations through the sale of arms and energy.
Bolton also alluded to the need for US financial assistance to Africa being more efficient, so as to ensure effective utilization of American tax payer money.
It would be pertinent to point out that the Trump administration, while realizing increasing Chinese influence in Africa, set up the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation), which will facilitate US financing for infrastructural projects in emerging market economies (with an emphasis on Africa). IDFC has been allocated a substantial budget — $60 billion. In October 2018, Trump had signed the BUILD (Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development) because he, along with many members of the administration, felt that the OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) was not working effectively and had failed to further US economic and strategic interests. Here it would be pertinent to mention that a number of US policy makers, as well as members of the strategic community, had been arguing for a fresh US policy towards Africa.
Two key features of IDFC which distinguish it from OPIC are, firstly, deals and loans can be provided in the local currency so as to defend investors from currency exchange risk. Second, investments in infrastructure projects in emerging markets can be made in debt and equity.
There is absolutely no doubt that some African countries have very high debts. Members of the Trump administration, including Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had also raised the red flag with regard to the pitfalls of China’s unsustainable economic policies and the ‘Debt Trap’.
According to Jubilee Debt Campaign, the total debt of Africa is well over $400 billion. Nearly 20 percent of external debt is owed to China. Three countries which face a serious threat of debt distress are Zambia, Republic of Congo, and Djibouti. The CGD report had also flagged the precarious economic situation of certain African countries such as Djibouti and Ethiopia.
US policy makers need to keep in mind a few points:
Firstly, Beijing has also made efforts to send out a message that BRI is not exploitative in nature, and that China was willing to address the concerns of African countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping, while delivering his key note address at the China-Africa Summit in September 2018, laid emphasis on the need for projects being beneficial for both sides, and expressed his country’s openness to course correction where necessary. While committing $60 billion assistance for Africa, the Chinese President laid emphasis on the need for a ‘win-win’ for both sides.
African countries themselves have not taken kindly to US references to debt caused as a result of China. While Bolton stated that Zambia’s debt is to the tune of $6 billion, an aide to the Zambian President contradicted the US NSA, stating that Zambia’s debt was a little over $3 billion.
At the China Zhejiang-Ethiopia Trade and Investment Symposium held in November 2018, Ethiopian State Minister of Foreign Affairs Aklilu Hailemichae made the point that Chinese investments in Ethiopia have helped in creating jobs and that the relationship between China and Ethiopia has been based on ‘mutual respect’. The Minister also expressed the view that Ethiopia would also benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative.
During the course of the Forum of China-Africa cooperation in September 2018, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had also disagreed with the assertion that China was indulging in predatory economics and this was leading to a ‘New Colonialism,’ as had been argued Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad during his visit to China in August 2018.
Washington DC needs to understand the fact that Beijing will always have an advantage given the fact that there are no strings attached to it’s financial assistance. To overcome this, it needs to have a cohesive strategy, and play to its strengths. Significantly, the US was ahead of China in terms of FDI in Africa in 2017 (US was invested in 130 projects as of 2017, while China was invested in 54 projects). Apart from this, Africa has also benefited from the AGOA program (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act), which grants 40 African countries duty free access to over 6000 products.
Yet, under Trump, the US adopts a transactionalist approach even towards serious foreign policy issues (the latest example being the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria) and there is no continuity and consistency.
US can explore joint partnership with allies
In such a situation, it would be tough to counter China, unless it joins hands with Japan, which has also managed to make impressive inroads into Africa, in terms of investments, and has also been providing financial assistance, though it is more cautious than China and has been closely watching the region’s increasing debts. Japan and India are already seeking to work jointly for promoting growth and connectivity in Africa through the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor. The US is working with Japan and India for promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, and can work with both countries for bolstering the ‘Prosper Africa’ project.
Perhaps, Trump should pay heed to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ (who will be quitting in February 2019) advice where he has spoken about the relevance of US alliances for promoting its own strategic interests.
There are of course those who argue that US should find common ground with China for the development of Africa, and not adopt a ‘zero-sum’ approach. In the past both sides have sought to work jointly.
African countries will ultimately see their own interests, mere criticism of China’s economic policies, and the BRI project, and indirectly questioning the judgment of African countries, does not make for strategic thinking on the part of the US. The key is to provide a feasible alternative to China, along with other US allies, or to find common ground with Beijing. Expecting nuance and a long term vision from the Trump Administration, however, is a tall order.
A Ministerial meeting attended by representatives from 52 African nations was held ahead of the 7th Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama in August 2019.
TICAD (which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The UNDP, World Bank Group and African Union Commission) was launched over two decades ago, in 1993, with the main objective being to bring back global interest in Africa (a number of key geopolitical developments, such as the end of the Cold War, had resulted in the global community shifting its focus away from Africa).
In the past two decades, TICAD forum has played a key role in Africa’s development. In recent years, the government of Japan has contributed to Africa’s development in a number of important areas. In the phase between 2008-2013, for example, the Government of Japan built a number of elementary and middle schools, upgraded healthcare and medical facilities, and also provided drinking water to rural villages.
During the last TICAD event, in 2016, held at Nairobi (Kenya), Japanese PM Shinzo Abe had committed $30 billion in assistance over a period of three years for key areas such as infrastructure and health care.
Beijing would be closely observing the recent meeting for a number of reasons. Continue reading
The European Union (EU) has put forward a plan for enhancing connectivity within Asia, and has been dubbed as the Asia Connectivity Strategy.
The EU does not want to give an impression that the Asia Connectivity Strategy (ACS) is a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, senior officials of the EU, while commenting on the broad aims and objectives of the project, have categorically stated that the primary goal of the Asia Connectivity Strategy is enhancing connectivity (physical and digital) while also ensuring that local communities benefit from such a project, and that environmental and social norms are not flouted (this is a clear allusion to the shortcomings of the BRI). There are no clear details with regard to the budget, and other modalities of the project (EU member countries are likely to give a go ahead for this project, before the Asia-Europe Meeting in October 2018). The EU has categorically stated that it would like to ensure that the ACS is economically sustainable.
Other alternatives to BRI: the US
It is not just the EU, but also the US, along with Japan and Australia, which are trying to create an alternative vision to the BRI.
On September 9, 2018 Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for establishing the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), as part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The corridor will traverse a distance of approximately 1700 kilometres and seeks to connect Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Myanmar’s key economic points – Mandalay, Yangon, and Kyauphkyu.
According to the MOU, both sides have agreed to collaborate in a number of areas. Some of the important areas identified for collaboration by both countries are: infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, finance, human resources development, telecommunications, and research and technology.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had first announced the proposal to build CMEC during his meeting with Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2017. The MOU had been finalized in February 2018.
The CMEC is an ambitious project from which Myanmar could benefit immensely. Yet, there have been apprehensions with regard to the economic feasibility of the project, and Myanmar does not want to meet the fate of other countries which have fallen into what has been dubbed as a ‘Debt Trap’.
Opposition to Kyauphkyu
There has been skepticism with regard to the BRI project in general, and China’s involvement in the SEZ and Sea Port to be set up in Kyauphkyu (a coastal town in the Rakhine Province) in particular. Large sections of the population have been questioning the economic rationale of the project – and the benefits for Myanmar. CITIC (China’s biggest financial conglomerate) was awarded both projects, but it had to reduce its stake from 85 percent to 70 percent in the Sea Port after vehement opposition from the local population. Locals found the 85-15 arrangement unreasonable. Fearing a debt trap, the NLD government in Myanmar has also reduced the initial value of the Sea Port project – a whopping $7.3 billion USD to $1.3 billion. There has been opposition to the SEZ as well (mainly on environmental grounds), and while the initial Chinese take in the SEZ (originally valued at $2.7 billion) was 51 percent, it is likely to be revised.
U Kan Zaw, a Minister in the erstwhile Than Sein government (and Chairman of the Kyauphkyu SEZ tender committee), confessed that Myanmar was not very keen for Chinese investment (it had sought investments from the UK and Europe), but it was not left with any other option once other countries declined to invest.
China beginning to acknowledge shortcomings of BRI projects
Of late Beijing has expressed a willingness to re-examine some aspects of BRI-related projects (including CMEC and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC). On the face of it, at least Beijing seems open to addressing the worries of countries which are part of the BRI.
Chinese media itself is trying to send a message that Beijing is responsive to concerns of countries which are part of the BRI initiative. A recent example is an article in CGTN on CMEC, which acknowledged not just the drawbacks of the project, but also the fact that the response to CMEC has been tepid so far in Myanmar. Said the article:
CMEC is temporarily suffering from a cold reception, we believe that it is an excellent endeavor.
The authors of the article also makes a significant point: that Chinese businessmen are not familiar with Myanmar. While the article could be referring to the lack of familiarity with Myanmar’s policies, many host countries have been critical not just of the ‘one sided’ nature of Chinese economic investments, but their unwillingness to understand local cultures, and the fact that they remain aloof from the local population.
On a number of occasions, Chinese businessmen have even misbehaved with locals. In Pakistan, on two occasions, Chinese businessmen have beaten up policeman, and this did not go down well with the local population.
While alluding to the failure of big ticket infrastructure projects, the article also refers to the need for Chinese investments in ‘light industry’ as opposed to ‘heavy industry’ (in a reference to infrastructural mega projects, such as those which were scrapped by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad).
One of the interesting aspects of CMEC is that Myanmar was keen to have third party investments, and not restrict itself only to Chinese investments. Investments will come from countries in South East Asia and East Asia — Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. While China’s economic presence in Myanmar is staggering, this has not gone unchallenged and of late countries like South Korea are also increasing their presence in Myanmar. The authors of the CGTN article also try to pitch for Chinese cooperation with other countries, arguing that joint investments will mean not only lesser economic and political burden for China, but that they could also reduce hostilities between Western and Chinese companies.
Finally, the article speaks about the need for greater cooperation between Myanmar and China in the sphere of agriculture (especially aquaculture), and that this cooperation should be economically beneficial for the local population.
It remains to be seen whether China will actually acknowledge the genuine concerns of countries participating in the BRI, and whether or not it will actually take some tangible steps to address the apprehensions. As stated earlier, Beijing seems slightly more flexible in its negotiations, but whether this is a short term trend (which many would argue is a consequence of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad’s straight talking with China) or not remains to be seen.
China may be further compelled to change its approach towards overseas economic investments after the recent electoral rout of Abdulla Yameen (outgoing Maldivian President), considered to be pro-China. One trend which is clearly emerging, as was evident from the electoral verdict of Maldives, was that leaders (many of whom position themselves as strongmen) blindly following Chinese diktats for short term economic goals does not go down well with ordinary citizens, and China may need to address its perception problem by looking beyond Cheque book Diplomacy.