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China’s BRI “White Paper”: ASEAN’s highway to prosperity

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28 Jul China’s BRI “White Paper”: ASEAN’s highway to prosperity

On 21 July, Singapore launched the first Belt and Road Multi-Cultural Studies Centre as a joint initiative between the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and the Overseas Education College (OEC) of China’s Xiamen University. This move is a timely one, given the increasing prominence of China’s vast infrastructure plan.

Earlier this year, China renamed the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative into the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Some believe the name change is a deliberate move to defray concerns that “all roads would lead back to China”, with critics of the plan arguing that the projects favour China’s interests over its partners.

Last month, China took another step to downplay the perception that the BRI is an aggressive play to dominate the region. On 20 June, China released a document titled “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative”. The document, termed a “white paper” by news agencies, spells out plans to jointly develop the BRI’s maritime leg with partner states.

China no less ambitious 

The 2017 White Paper is striking because it adopts a far more passive tone than China’s last Belt and Road white paper released in 2015. However, closer reading reveals that China’s ambitions have not faded over time.

Prior to the 2017 White Paper’s release, the official rhetoric was that the BRI would mirror the ancient Silk Road by retracing its Eurasian routes. However, the 2017 White Paper revealed plans to push the scope even further to include “commercial use of the Arctic route”. This opens the door for China to take part in “sustainable exploration of Arctic resources”, going beyond improving connectivity to discovering new resources.

The new White Paper also emphasises Chinese involvement in construction projects, indicating that China will “promote the participation of Chinese enterprise” in industrial parks and economic zones. Although much of the document is intended to assure partners that the BRI will be mutually beneficial, this emphasis might be a pushback against calls for projects to give priority to local companies rather than Chinese firms.

China eager to quell international anxiety 

There have been concerns that China could leverage maritime development projects to further its geostrategic interests. However, China has begun downplaying its combative maritime stance.

Early this year, China’s Foreign Ministry released an earlier Security Cooperation White Paper, with inputs from the Defence Ministry. That document had a strongly-worded message towards ASEAN, saying “small and medium sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries”.

In contrast, the new White Paper on the BRI does not have any mention of military activities, and issues like fishery law enforcement related to the South China Sea conflict, have been largely sidelined. The fact that China has made a point to draw a clear line between its security policy and the BRI is consistent with China’s move to portray the BRI as an inclusive regional growth strategy, not linked to China’s strategic aims.

Implications for ASEAN

In the past, some have expressed concern that ASEAN countries could get strong-armed into unfavourable positions; China’s proposed 85 per cent stake in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port is seen as one example of a “bad deal”.

However, the new White Paper suggests that ASEAN can leverage the international spotlight on BRI projects to secure favourable terms that share economic benefits with locals, and maintain environmental protection.

ASEAN states can also consider turning to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for financing, instead of directly from China. China is eager to legitimize the AIIB as a global financial institution in its own right, not merely part of China’s BRI. AIIB funding is seen as having less “strings attached”. For instance, the AIIB has given extensive funding to Indian projects, despite New Delhi’s reluctance to participate in China’s BRI.

The BRI represents an important opportunity for ASEAN to make progress on meeting its infrastructure gap, and China’s recent White Paper signals that there is leeway for ASEAN states to work with China on key projects without compromising national interests.

Sources:

2015 White Paper: Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road [National Development and Reform Commission People’s Republic of China, March 2015]

2017 White Paper: 2017 White Paper: Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative [English.gov.cn, Jun 2017]

Security Cooperation White Paper: China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation [English.gov.cn, Jan 2017]

India should shed ‘strategic anxiety’, join Belt and Road Initiative: Chinese media [Times of India, 2 Jul 2017]

First Belt and Road Studies Centre launches in Singapore [TODAY, 21 Jul 2017]