Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative: The Nation columnist

Liu Qibao, head of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Propaganda Department, speaks during the Forum on the development of Tibet, in Lhasa.
Liu Qibao, head of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Propaganda Department, speaks during the Forum on the development of Tibet, in Lhasa.PHOTO: REUTERS

Xian, Shaanxi province - Liu Qibao minced no words and talked at length about the concept and enormous potential of Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) for the global community and China’s future position in the world. 

As head of the Communist Party Central Committee’s Publicity Department, Liu expounded on how his country’s advanced modern technology and financial support would transform the ancient Silk Road trade route into a major land-sea transport network linking three continents 

Of course, these new multiple transportation routes would no longer rely on camels and caravans travelling thousands kilometres of through sand dunes and scorching sun. China now has high-speed trains and technology and is eager to export them.

Last week, more than 300 representatives from various Chinese government agencies, media and business together with foreign guests from 35 countries met at this ancient city - the original gateway to the Silk Route - to discuss views and issues related to the BRI. 

Three years have elapsed since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his idea, which so far failed to find a place in daily public conversation both in and outside of China.

Obviously, the BRI is a work in progress with an open-ended approach, and so many divergent views were expressed among local and foreign participants in Xian. 

However, two different narratives emerged. Firstly, the Chinese commentators were agreed that the BRI is good for everyone because it would help countries, regardless of size, location or religious background, since the networks would connect them with the rest of the world, carrying people, goods and other cargo. 

This would further countries' development and progress. The BRI is a Chinese idea focusing on balanced development and equality.

However, among the foreign representatives, views diverged according to their country's level of friendship with China. Generally speaking, those from Africa, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia were very receptive to the BRI. Over 40 countries are already cooperating with China on joint BRI programmes.

Views from Southeast Asia were more cautious. 

The BRI has been perceived as an ongoing attempt to export China's over-production capacity abroad and seek new market access as well as broaden foreign policy initiatives. Beijing hopes that the BRI will generate goodwill among the recipient countries and promote its international image as a new regional development planner.

Among the 10-member of Asean, only Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia have agreed joint BRI deals with China, mainly on railway construction. All of these countries want to improve their transport infrastructure, both on land and sea, especially with the development of a high-speed rail link between them including port facilities. Thailand has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the BRI and ranks 12th in terms of financial contribution to the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

As a grouping, Asean is still reluctant to commit, even though there have been high-level discussions on the BRI among regional leaders. In 2010, Asean came up with a detailed masterplan for connectivity among all its members. Some members believed that their proposal inspired China to devise its more comprehensive 2013 plan extending beyond Asia.

Last April, China proposed the launch of a high-level working group of director-generals from both sides to explore complementary elements of the two connectivity projects. There has been no further progress on this. Last month, at the 19th Asean-China summit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, each side merely "took note" of ongoing efforts and agreed to identify areas of joint cooperation.

Without wholehearted endorsement from Asean, the BRI will rely mainly on individual contracts and approaches from Asean members. With the new Masterplan of Asean Connectivity in 2025, there is more room for synergies and capacity building. Therefore, it is imperative for the BRI to link up with the regional framework one way or another.

As Asean-China relations enter their 26th year, the mutual enthusiasm that once helped them become close partners has now faded.

Residues of mistrust resulting from the prolonged South China Sea disputes are still causing high anxiety among Asean policymakers. Both sides have promised to complete a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea by the middle of next year. 

Recently, there has been a new positive development. China has signed an agreement with UN Development Programme, which will spearhead joint efforts to convince more countries to join the BRI. The UN's involvement paves the way for substantial progress, since many BRI objectives fit with the current UN agenda of sustainable development goals.

Asean has already assigned Thailand to identify priorities of the 17 sustainable development goals for the Asean Vision 2025. China and Asean could forge tripartite arrangements on specific programmes for sustainable development as a common platform to jump-start efforts to rebuild mutual trust and confidence.

It remains to be seen whether the BRI will be more than a labyrinth of land and sea routes serving an overarching framework of Chinese investment. What's certain is that, with proper implementation on the ground and full support from countries along the proposed routes, China will rise even higher in months and years to come.