China’s Belt and Road, and implications for ASEAN connectivity
The ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity (AMPC) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative have major commonalities. Both envisage transport connectivity as a way of bringing countries closer to one another, facilitating better access to trade, investment, tourism and people-to-people exchanges.
Similar to the BRI project, AMPC calls for a system of roads and railways to link contiguous members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with one another, as well as a system of ports for vessels and short shipping routes to link Southeast Asian countries with one another.
Given this shared vision, it is evident that this would pose a great benefit to developing ASEAN. Also, the Chinese initiative is sure to support the ASEAN nations in advancing regional connectivity.
China has been seeking the advancement of trade and investment with its economic partners. The BRI embodies and projects the reaching-out policy China has embraced. Through this initiative, China aims to trigger the demand for its products by investing intensively on strategic infrastructure projects internationally, developing economic ties along its old Silk Road to Europe and along newer maritime links in and around Asia and as far away as Africa.
Since 2009, China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner, and since 2011 ASEAN has been China’s third-largest trading partner. Given the vitality of the economic stability of the ASEAN states to China, considering the geographical proximity of the region, a key priority of the BRI is ASEAN’s burgeoning economies. Also, ASEAN is a prominent developing economic partner of China and is a top destination for Chinese businesses and corporations.
The BRI holds a crucial role in bridging ASEAN and China, two of the world’s most dynamic economies. This will also help the growing ASEAN region improve its internal connectivity among the 10 member states by continuously developing their economic zones in Asia and beyond.
The ASEAN member states formed the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2005 and have improved the linking of their economies together. Alongside the AEC, the BRI will further integrate the growing regional community through developing infrastructures in the region and improve its trading policies.
Also, the Chinese initiative will address an infrastructure deficit and support industrial development. The ASEAN region is known to be a fast-growing regional bloc, and will continue to develop economically with strengthened international and regional linkages.
The BRI will also provide a pathway for China to bolster its relations with the ASEAN nations economically. This will also support China’s project of further developing its 20,000-kilometer rail network to deliver technology and services regionally.
This initiative has already seen great achievements in railway construction in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia and linkages with China. Also, funding for the BRI has been supported by the Chinese government and Chinese commercial banks, speeding up the outcomes of the planned infrastructure projects in the region.
Clearly, both the AMPC and the BRI will support and improve the China-ASEAN relationship that is embedded in trade and investment.
However, the BRI also raises concerns for the ASEAN states, in particular that China may make use of economic incentives to lead participating states into broader cooperation with itself, threatening the regional body’s unity. This may eventually increase Chinese economic might and strategic pathways in the region, pressuring ASEAN members to recalculate their strategic alliances and re-evaluate their relations with China and their global interests.
However, the results of the BRI so far have evidently supported ASEAN’s need for infrastructure development.
The implementation of the Belt and Road agenda requires a high level of cooperation and understanding between and among ASEAN states and China. Alongside the strict enforcement of policies and analysis of risks, this would lead to bolstered economic development and linkages between Southeast Asia and China.