The need to build roads, ports, water-treatment plants and mass rapid transit systems in Asia's every corner is a pressing one, with new demands rising everywhere. It can be heard from the Khyber Pass to Baucau in Timor Leste, from the schoolgoer in the Mekong delta whose journey to study is shortened by the construction of a bridge to the manufacturer in Indonesia who saves on packaging costs from an improved road connecting factory and port. Where a simple telephone line was a game-changer once, fibre-optic cables are demanded now. Homes that made do with ceiling fans demand cheap energy to power air-conditioners. Whether for economic competitiveness or better quality of life, infrastructure is key.
The Asian Development Bank estimates that the region needs to invest US$26 trillion (S$35 trillion) by 2030 to alleviate some of the shortages crimping growth here. Current infrastructure spending is about half the US$1.76 trillion required annually. The shortfall is most acute outside China. The major power announced in May an additional 100 billion yuan (S$20.5 billion) to the Silk Road Fund, making for a total planned outlay of US$124 billion. In offering the pledge, President Xi Jinping called for the burying of ancient rivalries and diplomatic power games for a shared future of inclusiveness. Laudatory as the goal is, the reality is that infrastructure projects are subject to not just pork barrel politics but also nationalistic tension and major power rivalry.
Not all competition among giants is undesirable. Some elements of the geopolitical contest between China and Japan playing out in the infrastructure space currently - one stressing affordability and the other, quality - may, in fact, be healthy since it compels both to consider better terms, thereby cutting costs for the hosts. Besides, Japan's higher standards are helping to improve environmental and governance benchmarks and raise local sourcing.
Not every offer of help, of course, is made solely for the common weal. For example, some projects China offers South-east Asia are also to build secondary trade routes for itself, thus avoiding over- dependence on traditional channels. And Japan's projects are meant to widen its economic hinterland and counter China's growing influence.
Such contrarian pulls will inevitably rise with the ascent of new axes of power in Beijing and New Delhi, alongside Tokyo. In time, wisdom will dawn that this is a contest where no single power can prevail while victory to all is guaranteed only if they cooperate. The recent stand-off between China and India over the Himalayan border, which ended only after a mutually agreed pullback, testifies to that reality. In every jigsaw puzzle, there are pieces of varying shape and size. The magic of the game, whether in geopolitics or infrastructure, is to find space for everyone on the grand board of regional development.