Bad blood, high costs likely to hobble China's Belt and Road Initiative: China expert Wang Gungwu

Professor Wang Gungwu speaking at a panel discussion on Global politics: Leadership in an age of disruption at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum 2018 at The Ritz-Carlton, on Dec 5, 2017. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Workers set up a flower display ahead of the the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 10, 2017. REUTERS

SINGAPORE - China's bid to link countries in Asia and Europe under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) faces considerable problems at the practical level, not least due to suspicion over what the ambitious project is about, and it will be difficult to get it off the ground, prominent China watcher Wang Gungwu said on Tuesday (Dec 5).

Professor Wang pointed to the strife-ridden history of Eurasia and the cost of the grandiose scheme unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013.

The BRI envisages a massive nexus of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks connecting some 65 countries from China to North Africa, by way of Central Asia and Europe.

But Prof Wang, chairman of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, told participants at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum: "Different countries with different interests have to overcome lots of suspicion on what it (BRI) is all about."

Prof Wang noted that, historically, China's relations with Central Asia have been fraught, and this makes it difficult to persuade countries in that region to come on board the BRI project.

The price tag of infrastructure works is another deterrent, he said.

"To stretch the belt all the way to Europe will be very expensive and beyond China's ability to do it by itself, hence China is looking for partners, partners who believe in it and are equally committed to it.

"Here and there, China will make some successes but if very few countries join in, it won't get very far."

Mr Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, has pushed the infrastructure drive seen as central to expanding Beijing's economic and geopolitical clout.

The BRI was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party's Constitution at a key congress in October. Beijing also hosted in May the inaugural Belt and Road Forum, a diplomatic event touted to be the biggest held by China, with some 1,500 participants including 29 heads of state from more than 130 countries.

Yet, while an estimated US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) has been pledged to the BRI, with projects proposed in some 65 countries, progress on the ground has been slow.

For example, Beijing won the contract to build Indonesia's first high-speed railway in September 2015, but more than two years later, work has barely started on the route from Jakarta to the city of Bandung, Agence France-Presse reported last month.

On another planned high-speed line from southern China to Singapore, the Thai stretch of the railway was delayed by tussles over financing and protective labour regulations. It was only in July that the military government finally approved US$5.2 billion to start construction.

Work is under way on the 415km part of the line in Laos, a staunch ally of Beijing. But, even there, the project has stoked controversy due to its huge price tag - at US$5.8 billion, roughly half the country's 2015 gross domestic product - and the question of how much Laos will gain from the project.

There have been concerns in many countries about how much they will benefit from BRI projects.

Some critics say the project lacks institutional form and membership structure and resembles "a collection of bilateral negotiations".

But on another, higher level, said Prof Wang at the forum, China has managed to achieve something else through the BRI.

"At the highest level it is a visionary way of saying to the world that China's attention will be on Eurasia, not on challenging the US across the Pacific," said Prof Wang.

"It's going to focus for the next decade or so on Eurasia."

Titled "Facing the challenges of a new world order", this year's ST Global Outlook Forum was attended by more than 320 participants.

OCBC Premier Banking is the presenting sponsor for the forum and Mercedes-Benz is the official car for the event.

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