A Mixed Reality of The Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia

By Mai Phan

From 25-27 April 2019, Beijing hosted the second Belt and Road Initiative Forum, welcoming the heads-of-state  from thirty-six nations and delegates from one hundred-fifty countries. In response to the event, many international headlines addressed the initial success of China’s policy in Southeast Asia, citing an impressive number of Southeast Asian leaders presenting at the Forum. According to the list published by Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, there are nine Southeast Asian states among the  thirty-six that attended (In fact, Indonesia was not in the list because it had Vice President Jusuf Kalla attended). [1] Prashanth Parameswaran, senior editor at the Diplomat, suggested that the guest list of the Second Belt and Road Initiative Forum has drawn a level of commitment from Southeast Asian nations; however, the reality is more complicated since Southeast Asian countries have always been aware of the challenges that arise from the BRI  at home and abroad. [2] Similarly, I argue that the current reality in Southeast Asia has not allow a full integration of the Belt and Road policy within the subregion, evidenced by the rigid relationship with the United States.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is President Xi Jinping’s grand strategy  that aims to reestablish the ancient Silk Road and expand China’s influence across the globe. Announced by Xi in 2013, the BRI seemed vague and raised skepticism among many other nations. Half a decade after the announcement, China has surprised the world with measurable accomplishments and real progress working towards the plan. Statistically, China’s trade in goods with BRI countries exceeds $5.5 trillion, involving in 82 overseas economic and trade cooperation zones, and generating $28.9 billion in FDI  and 244,000 jobs. [3] Moreover, Southeast Asian nations which initially neglected the outcomes of BRI have recognized some pragmatic achievements and influence of the BRI’s projects. Specifically, the Second forum held in Beijing welcomed two additional Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand and Singapore, which were absent during the first BRI forum. Again, although Southeast Asian nations have perceived the benefits of BRI’s membership during the transition of the current world affairs, they remain cautious of challenges and burdens of joining China’s grand vision.

In the article from The Diplomat, Southeast Asia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Parameswaran addresses several shreds of evidence leading to a fragile BRI in Southeast Asia. First, even though Southeast Asian states previously signed several agreements publicly disclosed related to BRI, the number of accords achieved in the Second forum is still ambiguous. Moreover, Parameswaran indicates that the Second forum’s main discussion only implements either existing initiatives or limited new convergences. Hence, the BRI’s initial progress should not be regarded as the full embrace from its southern neighbors. Second, China demonstrated an ambition to become the world’s dominant power through the establishment of BRI, but significant concerns leading to Southeast Asian anxiety over China’s policy are maintained. Specifically, debt issues raising from major infrastructure projects [4], environmental sustainability [5], and maritime security in the South China Sea have deteriorated the trust among Southeast Asian nations in the massive project. Specifically, in July 2019, Malaysia has suspended a billion-dollar railway project part of BRI in response to swollen national debt. [6] According to Parameswaran, President Xi Jinping has yet sought reasonable solutions to these severe matters that generate major disadvantages for BRI’s success in Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, I want to note that the existing US-ASEAN partnership also plays an important role in hindering the development of BRI in Southeast Asia. Since the Obama administration, Southeast Asia has become a major focus of US foreign policy. Economically, the United States is the fourth-largest trading partner with ASEAN, with a total trade value worth $212,343 million. [7] Politically, the United States has been traditionally allied with Thailand and the Philippines for decades. Besides, American foreign policy makers are putting further effort on building new alliances with other Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam. Importantly, the United States has been deeply engaged in the South China Sea crisis through increasing military deployment and actively conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in South China Sea. More than several times, the United States’ naval has attempted to counter Chinese aggression  in the South China Sea. With a limited military capability, Southeast Asia is highly dependent on the United States’ military presence in the South China Sea to maintain regional peace and stability. That is, both Southeast Asian nations and the United States enjoy tremendously intertwined benefits from the bilateral cooperation in economy and maritime security. This is particularly true as the United States and China are entering an extensive era of economic competition in which Southeast Asia plays a sensitive role as to be partner with both nations. As I stated before, the future of BRI in Southeast Asia is more complicated that its surface due to a mixture of problems from BRI’s vagueness to a complicated triangular relationship among China, the United States, and Southeast Asia. 

In conclusion, the op-ed piece is responding to the Diplomat article written by Prashanth Parameswaran. It completely agrees with Parameswaran’s viewpoint that Southeast Asian nations both show interests in Xi’s grand strategy and remain aware of challenges that related to the nature of China’s behavior broadly, leading to an uncertain future for the BRI in Southeast Asia. Specifically, Parameswaran indicates that there is a lack of published documents reporting concrete achievements in the Second Belt and Road Forum and China’s failure to address critical matters such as environment sustainability and debt issues. Additionally, I want to point out a major mitigating factor of the geopolitical anxiety faced by many Southeast Asian states is the region’s existing relationship with the United States. In short, the humdrum three-way relationship involving Southeast Asia, China, and the United States poses a formidable burden to China’s expansionary ambitions towards its southern neighbors .

Mai Phan is a junior at Lebanon Valley College where she studies Global Studies and Politics.. She is the Journal’s 2018-19 Correspondent for Southeast Asian Affairs.

Works Cited

[1] https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/second-belt-and-road-forum-top-level-attendees/

[2] https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/southeast-asia-and-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative/

[3] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201809/05/WS5b8f09bfa310add14f3899b7.html

[4] https://www.csis.org/npfp/its-debt-trap-managing-china-imf-cooperation-across-belt-and-road

[5] https://theaseanpost.com/article/chinas-bri-negatively-impacting-environment    

[6] https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/malaysia-pipelines-07152019174120.html

[7] https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Table20_as-of-6-dec-2016.pdf

Image Source: https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/3007898/xi-sets-belt-and-road-initiative-firmer-path-global-good