China’s Continuing Regional Efforts in 2018
Photo Credit: Xinhua
By Tai Wei Lim

China’s Continuing Regional Efforts in 2018

Jan. 22, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — known as the One Belt One Road initiative when it was launched in 2013 — is moving along in 2018. Bilaterally connecting China with 65 countries, the Chinese government has a dream of global contributions and integration with global norms.


In the Central Asian region, China announced the start of the overland Silk Road Economic Belt in Kazakhstan, a country rich in natural resources, including oil. China is interested in the country’s oil and the construction of infrastructure facilities. Some Sino-Kazakh joint ventures have rotating management boards with Chinese and Kazakh managers taking the lead consecutively. Besides Central Asia, the BRI has also been extended to the South Asian region. Within the Indian Ocean basin, China is operating a 99-year leasehold port facility jointly with the Sri Lankan authorities.


In the Southeast Asian region, China is operating a hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River and Chinese private sector companies are working on an Indian Ocean port project at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. The Chinese have access to the Indian Ocean through this port and are using it for an oil pipeline via this route. China recently had major diplomatic success with Myanmar after it vetoed United Nations Security Council discussions on the Rohingya issue. This won China support from the Myanmar military and the Aung San Suu Kyi government that are under siege from international criticism from liberals, human rights advocates, and progressives.


China’s activities in Southeast Asia indicate that the region remains an important one. This has implications for future BRI-related initiatives. The leadership of some countries in Southeast Asia are aligned with the BRI’s vision of infrastructural connectivity. For example, Cambodia is benefitting from products and services exported by China and infrastructure and aid provided by China. While Cambodia’s strongman leader Hun Sen’s treatment of the opposition has triggered punitive measures from the West, alternative developmental and economic funding is now available from China. 


China is also working with Cambodia in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) project, which makes China a principal player in the administration of the region’s natural resources. Water is an important resource for all LMC partners, as it feeds the rice fields of the region, hosts freshwater fish which support the livelihoods of many families along the Lancang-Mekong river, and generates electricity. In all, the Lancang-Mekong river is a major artery of economic activity in Indo-China, and securing influence in that sub-region can be equated with securing a foothold in continental Southeast Asia. Both subsistence survival and economic take-off are dependent on water management in the LMC.


Geographically, the Lancang-Mekong river passes through Tibet, Qinghai, and the Indo-Chinese countries including Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The fact that the river flows through all these countries means that there is a common and shared destiny for all the stakeholders involved in infrastructure projects in the LMC region. Many of the countries involved are also driven by the desire for economic development. Many seek industrialization to reach middle income economic status and beyond. They would like to experience economic take-off.

China is already the biggest trading and/or investing nation within the CLMV+T (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam + Thailand) countries.

The state media in China has portrayed the LMC sub-region as an example of the continuing push for globalization despite anti-globalization forces emerging in the world economy. Institutionally, secretariats and working groups in many areas of LMC development, including agriculture and poverty reduction, have been formed. The idea is to utilize the LMC as well as other sub-regional schemes to strengthen ASEAN’s own development, integration, and production networking.


As an ambitious scheme, the BRI demands prudence and caution. China will need to continue to reach out to local communities, understand local conditions and needs, and also dialogue with officials at all levels. Besides meeting ASEAN’s own wish list, the LMC should continue to contribute to the UN’s 2013 agenda for sustainable development. This will complement China’s desire for major contributions to humanity and the global community.


The first Lancang top leaders’ meeting was officiated by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In March 2016, the LMC sub-region started a 3+5 system of cooperation: 3 cooperation areas (political and security issues, economic and sustainable development, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges) and 5 main important points (connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, and agriculture and poverty reduction).


Many of these priority areas mirror those formulated amongst the ASEAN states. China appears to be keen to use the LMC to upgrade ties with ASEAN countries, with an eye on the ASEAN common market in formation, known as the ASEAN Economic Community which had formed quietly at the end of 2015. The LMC is conceptualized as one of the routes for better ASEAN-China relations. It therefore serves an outreach function in addition to economic production networking. China after all is already the biggest trading and/or investing nation within the CLMV+T (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam + Thailand) countries.


Through economic development and understanding, the LMC stakeholders also promote peace, stability, and security in the region. This diminishes beggar-thy-neighbor tendencies. In other words, such cooperative platforms are strategic in nature and comprehensive in scope. Some concrete proposals to upgrade LMC cooperation include: cooperation in managing and mitigating water supply during arid and monsoon seasons through water distribution and resource-sharing; and monitoring developments and exchanging information amongst stakeholders about floods and droughts. If these schemes succeed, the LMC can be a potential model for South-South development.


The BRI is taking place against the background of protectionism and global insularity, as seen in 2016 and 2017 with the likes of Brexit and the “America First” policy. China appears to be leading and advocating neo-liberal trade through its encouragement of connectivity. After all, it has been a major beneficiary of globalization for the last few decades.


Depleting overcapacity may be one of the earlier objectives of the BRI, but the global outreach has also introduced the risks of doing business overseas for Chinese companies, and has also allowed them to experience international competition. If the lessons are well-learnt, they may sharpen these companies’ agility in doing business in different environments. Future challenges are likely to include geopolitical ones. China’s growing networks, influence, and economic integration with other parts of the world bring them closer in contact with other global and regional powers. Thus, China needs to convince others that its intentions are benign and mutually beneficial.

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