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.
On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.
It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.
Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.
The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading
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.
Recently, China’s consular general in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, while speaking at a function, proposed a bullet train connecting Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Kolkata, the capital of India’s eastern state of West Bengal. Said Ma:
With joint efforts of India and China, a high-speed rail link could be established between the two cities.
It would be pertinent to point out that the proposal for a bullet train connecting Kunming and Kolkata had been discussed earlier at the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) meet in 2015. In fact, enhancing connectivity between India and China through the Kolkata-Kunming multi-modal corridor (officially the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, or BCIMEC), which covers a distance of 2,800 kilometres, has been under discussion for over 2 decades, through the Track II K2K (Kolkata-Kunming) dialogue. During former India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China visit, in October 2013, sister city relations were established between Kunming and Kolkata.
In recent years, China has been pro-actively reaching out to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and has invited her to visit on repeated occasions, though she has been unable to visit (she was all set to visit in June 2018, but her trip was cancelled at the last moment). Apart from this, a number of Chinese investors have expressed interest in investing in West Bengal and even attended the Bengal Global Business Summit 2018.
Given the increasing emphasis on connectivity with South East Asia, through India’s North East (one of the key aims of India’s ‘Act East Policy’), it was believed that the BCIMEC would tie in neatly with India’s vision for connectivity.
However, tensions between India and China – due to the Doklam standoff as well as Beijing’s insistence that BCIMEC be included in its official Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – have contributed to a wane in New Delhi’s interest in the project, at least for the time being. The Rohingya crisis, and more general tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar, are also a major impediment to the project.
The China Myanmar Economic Corridor: Why New Delhi should pay close attention
While a high speed train is an ambitious project, New Delhi can not be closed to the BCIMEC and should pay close attention to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (the Memorandum of Understanding for this project was signed on September 9, 2018). While the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has been under discussion for some time, there have been numerous debates with regard to the economic implications for Myanmar (the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port project, as well as Special Economic Zones, have been contentious). The increasing debate on the issue of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has only increased apprehensions within sections of the Myanma government (the stake of Chinese conglomerate CITIC in the deep sea port has been reduced from 85 percent to 70 percent due to domestic pressures). Myanmar has also made it clear that it would not like to depend only on Chinese investments, and the recently-signed MOU categorically states that third party investments from Japan, South Korea, and Thailand in CMEC projects are more than welcome. Interestingly, an article on CMEC in Chinese media acknowledges some of the apprehensions vis-à-vis CMEC, and also bats for closer cooperation between China and other Asian and Western countries.
The proposal for the bullet train connecting Kolkata-Kunming came days after the agreement had been signed between China and Myanmar. China would like to extend this corridor all the way to India (while speaking about rail connectivity between Kunming and Kolkata, the Chinese diplomat also spoke about an industrial cluster along the route).
How should New Delhi play it?
While New Delhi’s objections to the BRI are valid, it does need to shed blinkers. It is free not to participate in those components of the project with which it is not comfortable, but there are projects, like the BCIMEC, where it can easily find common ground with China. This will give a boost to India’s infrastructure in the eastern and northeastern part of the country, and complement it’s Act East Policy. If third countries are allowed to invest in CMEC, Indian companies should explore opportunities, as this will enhance their presence in Myanmar while also bolstering the Act East Policy.
China’s narrative in South Asia
Post the Wuhan Summit, there has been a clear change of narrative from the Chinese side. China has expressed its keenness to work jointly with India in Afghanistan – in capacity-building projects. This was unthinkable a few years ago.
China’s burgeoning economic relationship with Nepal has sent alarm signals in New Delhi. China’s decision to give Nepal access to its ports (Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang) raised the hackles in New Delhi. Pragmatists realize that New Delhi can not dictate Nepal’s ties with China, and the fact is that Kathmandu would like to benefit economically from its ties with both China and India.
Interestingly, China has been urging Nepal to strengthen economic ties with India. During his visit to Beijing, Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Oli, made an unequivocal pitch for strong ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi (as well as Kathmandu and Beijing). He stated that the economic progress of both India and China was an opportunity for Nepal, and stated that Nepal wanted to emerge as a bridge between both countries, and would not like to get embedded in zero sum geopolitical games. Nepal’s former Prime Minister, Prachanda, during his visit to India, also referred to the need for close ties with both India and China.
India should also keep in mind a few other points
While many in New Delhi are pointing to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s stand against Chinese projects, it is important to keep in mind that while the Malaysian PM has scrapped a few projects, he has continued to reiterate the relevance of the China-Malaysia relationship (there is need for nuance). Second, it is one thing to point out the shortcomings of the BRI project, but India needs to prove its own track record in big ticket connectivity projects (New Delhi has been extremely slow when it comes to the implementation of connectivity projects within the neighbourhood). Third, there are areas where India is already working with China, so rigidity and paranoia do not make much sense. If even Japan is willing to participate in certain projects of BRI, there is absolutely no reason why India should not at least be open to elements of the project. It is also important to look at connectivity from an economic dimension and not a narrow security prism as large sections of India’s strategic community do. Finally, New Delhi can not put all its eggs in the American basket. While India’s strategic relationship with the US has witnessed an improvement, and Washington has repeatedly spoken about the need for greater connectivity within the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the US is not likely to invest significantly in economic connectivity projects. India thus can not be totally dismissive of Beijing-led connectivity initiatives.
While New Delhi needs to exhibit pragmatism, Beijing on its part needs to address the concerns of India, and other countries, with regard to the BRI.