“Building Back A Better World”: Can it challenge the BRI?

Introduction

Ever since taking over as President, Joe Biden has reiterated the need for the US and its allies to work together to check China’s economic rise by providing alternatives to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project as well as its burgeoning technology scene. During his State of the Union address in April 2021, the US President had said:

China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future

It would be pertinent to point out that 138 nations on five continents have signed various BRI cooperation agreements with China as of the end of 2020. (EU member states including Greece and Italy are also on board the BRI.) China has so far invested a whopping $690 billion in BRI-related projects in 100 countries.

G7 and the B3W

On June 12, 2021 the G7 unveiled the Building Back a Better World (BBBW/B3W), a brain child of the Biden Administration. The G7 leaders said that the B3W would be “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent.” During a conversation with Boris Johnson in March, the US President had discussed the need for an alternative to the BRI. A number of BRI related projects in developing countries in Asia and Africa have drawn criticism for lacking in transparency and not being economically sustainable, leading to debts which make countries dependent upon them or leads to a “Debt Trap (pdf).”

Debt trap has been defined as “a predatory system designed to ensnare countries into a straightjacket of debt servitude.” A prominent example of this is Sri Lanka, where when the South Asian nation’s debt burden vis-à-vis China became untenable, it was compelled to sign a 99-year lease with China through which Beijing got 70% stake in the strategic port of Hambantota. Many projects falling under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), too, have been under the cloud for lacking transparency and not being feasible. In certain cases, such as the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, Beijing has had to renegotiate the cost of projects (it was brought down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion) as a result of strong local opposition.

Alternatives to BRI

The Trump Administration received bi-partisan support for the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development ) Act, which created a new agency (the United States International Development and Financial Corporation, or USIDFC) with a corpus of $60 billion to facilitate private sector involvement in the Indo-Pacific, especially African countries. In 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also made a commitment of $113 million to projects in the Indo-Pacific focused on technology, infrastructure, and energy. In November 2019, the US, Japan, and Australia had also launched the Blue Dot Network on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.

Then-US National Security Advisor Robert O Brien had compared the Blue Dot Network to Michelin Guide, which meant that just like a Michelin star is the sign of approval for a restaurant, a blue dot would be a seal of approval for infrastructural projects. Days before the G7 meeting, the inaugural meeting of the consultation group of the Blue Dot Network was held in Paris, apart from representatives from Western governments and Japan, other stakeholders such as members of civil society, academics, and 150 global executives participated in this meeting.

The US State Department, while commenting on the Blue Dot Network, had said:

The Blue Dot Network will be a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent and sustainable infrastructure projects

Under the umbrella of Quad countries (US, Japan, Australia, and India), too, there has been discussion on enhancing economic cooperation as well as connectivity.

Opportunities for the B3W

There is an opportunity for the B3W, since in the aftermath of Covid, certain BRI projects have slowed down. Second, the geographical scope of BBBW is much wider than that of the projects under the Indo-Pacific (B3W will also include Latin America and Caribbean). BBBW can also hardsell its strengths such as transparency and sustainability – both economic and environmental. It also can dovetail with some of Biden’s ambitious economic schemes related to the economy and infrastructure. The fact that Biden is willing to take the lead, unlike Trump, is reassuring for allies and sends out a positive message to developing countries looking for alternatives to the BRI. While addressing a press conference after G7, the US President made this point:

The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries, and America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values

The US had also categorically clarified that the B3W seeks to provide an alternative to BRI, but it is not merely about targeting China.

Possible limitations of B3W

Yet, there are limitations. First, the B3W still does not have a clear blue print. Second, it would be tough to match the BRI in terms of resources. Third, a number of G7 members who themselves share good relations with China may be reluctant to get on board the initiative (even though it has been made clear that the B3W initiative is not just about targeting China).

Conclusion

In conclusion, a lot will depend upon how much not just the US government and big businesses are willing to invest in the B3W (since the model will be different from the BRI, which is one of ‘state capitalism’) but whether other members of the G7 are willing to play a proactive role in such a project. An alternative is needed to the BRI and the announcement of B3W is welcome. Taking it forward and competing with BRI may not be impossible but is certainly a tough task.

China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of $113 million in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).

The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, what emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as “the foam on the sea […] that gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision and BRI, especially in the economic sphere, China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping $13 billion). Even in the ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects. Malaysia, which shares close economic ties with Beijing, is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.

In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Finally, the US is getting serious about the Indo-Pacific

China has not been particularly comfortable with the Trump Administration’s repeated use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (of late, it has been quite scathing in it’s criticism). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which has been used for a few years, has now gained more attention after a few developments:

First, during Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, in which he visited Japan, Vietnam, and attended the ASEAN Summit, he used this term on more than one occasion.

Before his India visit in October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a vision for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. Tillerson, while pitching for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, also highlighted the need for preventing illiberal multilateralism. Said the former US Secretary of State:

We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity — so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.

The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was followed by the revival of the Quad Grouping (India, Australia, US, Japan). Senior officials of these four countries met on the eve of the East Asia Summit, held in Manila, and discussed ways to strengthen cooperation for promotion of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.

There have been a number of meetings between representatives of Japan, the US, and India to discuss a wide range of issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, and strengthening collaboration between these countries

China’s criticism of Indo-Pacific and Quad

China dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention grabbing idea’, while the Quad too has been criticized by Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while commenting on the Quad, likened the Quad to ‘foam on the sea’ that ‘will soon dissipate’ once the attention due to headlines turns elsewhere.

The Indo-Pacific narrative did lack a vision

One issue on which it is hard to disagree with Beijing, and those skeptical about the ‘Indo-Pacific’, is the fact that countries who have joined hands for promoting a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific (as a sort of counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative), did not have clarity in terms of enhancing connectivity and economic linkages. They have met on a number of occasions to discuss connectivity projects and a myriad of other issues but nothing substantial has emerged so far. This lack of effort, according to many, has been one of the main reasons for the Indo-Pacific narrative not being taken seriously (even by US allies). The other problem, of course, has been the Trump administration’s differences with allies like Japan and South Korea on economic and geopolitical issues.

US rolls out an economic vision for the Indo-Pacific

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated a broader economic vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also speaking about the likely role of the US in promoting cooperation.

First, Pompeo yet again reiterated the US desire for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, and how the US was fervently opposed to the hegemonic tendencies of certain countries (in a clear reference to China).

Second, at a time when a number of countries, such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, are beginning to question the financial feasibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, Pompeo’s words are significant. It may also be pointed out that his address at the US Chamber of Commerce was made days before he began his Asia trip (which included visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore).

Third, Pompeo spoke about the $113 million investment in areas such as digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this investment as a ‘…down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Fourth, the US Secretary of State also spoke about the potential role of the US private sector in promoting economic growth, prosperity, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo stated:

We want private industry with the assistance of the United States government, understanding that we’re going to support this effort, we’re going to have private industry go in and develop relationships. When American businesses come to these countries, they’ll thrive

China’s reaction to Pompeo’s speech

China was dismissive of the US commitment towards Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that even in the past, there has been talk of cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia working jointly for developing infrastructure, but so far not much has been achieved.

While there is absolutely no doubt that an alternative narrative is needed to China, the US also needs to be more predictable in terms of economic and strategic relations with key players in the Indo-Pacific. One of Washington’s closest allies in the past, Japan, has been extremely uncomfortable with not just the tariffs, but also on Trump’s handling of strategic issues (such as the North Korea issue).

The example of Indian and Japanese Companies in South Asia

If differences can be ironed out, there is clear space for companies of different countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have already taken the lead in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (two countries likely to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific). In Bangladesh, Marubeni and Larsen and Toubro shall work jointly for supplying electrical and mechanical railway systems for Phase 6 of the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transport. In Sri Lanka, Petronet, along with Japanese companies, is setting up an LNG terminal near Colombo (L&T has already been working with Marubeni for setting up a 400 MW gas plant in Habibgant district, Bangladesh). Petronet will hold 47.5 per cent stake in the project while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitz Corp will take 37.5 per cent stake, while the remaining 15 percent stake will be held by a Sri Lankan company.

Conclusion

Pompeo’s emphasis – on the need for greater transparency in investments, US support for areas such as technology in the Indo-Pacific, and a more pro-active role for the private sector in the Indo-Pacific – all make sense. A lot will depend upon Donald Trump’s approach on critical geopolitical and economic issues, and whether he is able to take along key allies such as Japan. A lot will also depend upon relations of countries, especially Japan and India, with China. In recent months, Japan and India have been trying to recalibrate economic ties with Beijing (a number of Japanese companies are in fact participating in the BRI). While this in no way implies that the narrative of the Indo-Pacific will lose its relevance, it does remain to be seen whether Japan and India would put it on high priority.

Pompeo’s speech is interesting, and it remains to be seen how companies from other countries react and whether they explore the possibility of investing in big ticket connectivity projects.

The Indo-Pacific narrative, US insularity, and China’s increasing influence

Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump, during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific’). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State Richard Tillerson, while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC), explicitly mentioned a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India, and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, an official statement from the US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier, too, the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. This was discussed during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018, and between representatives of Japan, the US, and India in April 2018 when the three sides met in New Delhi, committing themselves to furthering connectivity between the countries.

China Factor

While members of the Quad have continuously denied that the Indo-Pacific concept is specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Emmanuel Macron, who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India, Australia, and France to work together in order to ensure a rules-based order. Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President stated:

What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony.

Evolving relationship between China-India and China-Japan

While it is good to talk about a rules-based order, and a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant, especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second, the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of the Malabar exercises last June (Japan, US, and India participated). Australia is a member of the Quad alliance and has been one of the vocal protagonists of the Free and Fair Indo-Pacific narrative. Canberra has also expressed vocally the need for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has on more than one occasion expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations, though India has been dismissive of this argument.

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said such a possibility was discussed. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is seeking to improve ties with China, recently reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly, the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) projected to be components of the Indo-Pacific strategy, has even gone to the extent of stating that it does not perceive the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, the President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao, stated that “AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does the Indo-Pacific move from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not an unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, China’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang, had stated that there was “no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

Similarly, in terms of promoting democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, especially in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important for the Indo-Pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders.

Recent developments in the context of Indo-Pacific

At a time when a massive churn is taking place in the Donald Trump Administration (HR Mcmaster was replaced as head of the NSA by John Bolton, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was replaced with the more hawkish Mike Pompeo), Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave a briefing with regard to the US vision for ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy, on April 3, 2018 (a day before a trilateral dialogue took place between senior officials from India, Japan and US). Wong outlined the contours of the strategy, and spoke not just about the strategic vision, but also the economic vision of the US, with regard to the Indo-Pacific.

A backgrounder to the Indo-Pacific, Quad, and the China Factor

For a long time, the US referred to the region as ‘Asia-Pacific’ (which China prefers), but the current Trump Administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. During his visit to East Asia and South East Asia, in November 2017, the US President had used the term more than once (much to the discomfort of China) giving a brief overview of what he meant by a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. While speaking to a business delegation at Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Trump spoke about ‘rule of law’ and playing by the rules. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had referred to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad Alliance (consisting of US, India, Japan, and Australia) in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a Washington think tank)  in October 2017, a week before his India visit.

In order to give a further thrust to the Quad, representatives of all four countries met on the eve of East Asia Summit in Manila. A statement of the Indian Foreign Ministry said: Continue reading

Quad: The way ahead and the key challenges

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been pitching in favor of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ ever since the first meeting between representatives of member states in November 2017.

Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, actually proposed this arrangement about a decade ago. Diplomatic engagement began, and joint military exercises were even held, but a change in guard in Australia, as well as Chinese complaints to member states, resulted in the end of the arrangement. Given the increasing focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the strengthening of strategic ties between all four countries, reticence was finally shed and representatives of the four countries met in November 2017, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. The main aim of the alliance, thus in other ways, has been to check China’s assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, and democracy has been one of the key binding factors between the Quad. The U.S. State Department, after the meeting in November 2017, issued a statement that the United States is “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

More recently, the joint statement issued after the meeting between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February 2018, reiterated the point about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Said the joint statement between both countries: Continue reading