How Japan will miss out by staying out of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

While 57 nations have joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Japan has opted to stay out.

Tokyo's stark isolation represents a major diplomatic setback that is considered a result of its subordination to Washington's will as well as its traditional Sinophobia.

Japanese business leaders have voiced concern about missing the huge investment opportunities involving the AIIB.

However, their political leaders, citing numerous shortcomings of AIIB, insist on opposing the new bank they consider an intolerable challenge to the US-dominated international financial order.

Few in Japan thus seem to see beyond the simple equation of "China versus Japan/US" rivalry and grasp an overall picture of the actual ambitious scale of what China has in mind behind the AIIB.

According to US energy expert Robert Berke, "AIIB is only part of the revolutionary change in the economic map of the world that China is aiming at".

More than the alleged malicious pleasure of challenging the US-dominated financial system, the Chinese push for AIIB actually has the pragmatic aim of financing the huge infrastructure needs, not only in China and South-east Asia, but also in Central Asia along the planned overland Silk Road; in South-east and South Asia along the Chinese-proposed "Maritime Silk Road"; and possibly in the Arctic Ocean along the future shipping routes soon to be made possible by thawing Arctic ice.

Obsessed with Chinese threats, Japan has grown oblivious to the Chinese game-changing "One Belt One Road" project under way on the other side of the continent, aiming at linking Asia to the Middle East and Europe, via the hitherto-overlooked Central Asia.

Exploiting the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, offering large-scale oil/gas deals, and investing generously in the infrastructure of the Central Asian countries, China has built such a strong influence with these countries that it has practically replaced Russia as the major power in this region.

This new friendly environment to China's west, in sharp contrast with the hostile environment Beijing encounters to its east, provides a favourable ground for building the Silk Road.

As the US withdraws from Afghanistan, Beijing fills the geopolitical void and has gained influence with the war-torn neighbouring country that, once peace returns, can offer China a direct overland gateway to the oil-rich Middle East.

At the same time, China also maintains an intimate relationship with Pakistan, aiming to build an "economic corridor" linking western China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

It is not hard to imagine AIIB's role in the colossal infrastructure building required in these regions under the framework of the Silk Road project.

In December last year, a Chinese freight train made history linking the Chinese city of Yiwu (near Shanghai) and Madrid, having travelled 26,000km through western China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Germany and France.

The train inaugurated the world's longest railway service while marking the opening of one lucrative aspect of the modern-day Silk Road.

Again, AIIB will certainly play a major role in infrastructure building along this Trans-Continental railway linking Asia's Pacific Coast to Europe's Atlantic Coast.

Besides the "One Belt One Road" project, the Chinese blueprint seems to also comprise exploring a new shipping route through the Arctic Ocean in view of a drastically shortened trade link between Asia, Europe and America. Recent climate changes and accelerated melting of ice have freed up the hitherto-frozen and forbidden Arctic Ocean to a growing commercial shipping traffic.

The new opportunities in the Arctic region have attracted the interests of Arctic countries as well as Asian countries (China, Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore). China, in particular, has cultivated an undeniable presence in this new frontier, to the point of declaring itself a "near-Arctic country".

Using its icebreakers extensively, China has notably taken a clear lead in developing a new shipping lane through the Arctic Ocean, known as the Northeast Passage.

As Professor Joseph Chinyong Liow of Singapore pointed out in Foreign Affairs last year, compared to the conventional Asia-Europe shipping route through the Malacca Strait and the Suez Canal, the new Northeast Passage offers considerable savings in terms of distance, time, fuel consumption, lower fares and lower carbon dioxide emission.

The distance between Yokohama and Rotterdam, for example, would be cut by 8,700km.

The future commercial phase of this "Arctic Silk Road" will imply considerable investments in modernising the obsolete port infrastructure in this remote region. That would be a most suitable role for AIIB.

Tokyo may have plausible reasons for mistrusting the China- led AIIB. However, not only is it about to miss the business opportunities described above, but, as critics suspect, there is also a risk of seeing its American ally suddenly reverse its position and join the AIIB, leaving a humiliated Japan out in the cold.

The Chinese are still hoping for Japan to join the AIIB, which would certainly be in the interest of all parties, starting with Japan.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a retired French diplomat who has served in French diplomatic missions in Japan, the United States, Singapore and China.