Posts Tagged ‘Myanmar’

Finally, a short post for the Financial Times Beyond BRICS blog, trying to challenge some of the narrative that we see around the Belt and Road pushback that has become the dominant feature of the public conversation. It is happening, but being mischaracterised at the moment. To also separately catch up on media, spoke to NBC about the US-China clash and to Reuters about the recent attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by the Baluchistan Liberation Army (which was picked up a few places including in 普通话 for VOA Cantonese).

China’s Belt and Road hits problems but is still popular

US should not oppose the projects but offer alternative solutions
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Chinese construction project in Sri Lanka: countries that criticise the Belt and Road Initiative overlook the real need in developing nations for foreign investment © Bloomberg

There is a narrative of pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s programme to finance and build infrastructure in about 88 countries around the world. Coming against the backdrop of US-China confrontation, this evidence of pushback is being read as a collective response to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s overarching foreign policy concept.

But this misses the detail of several deals in which the context is more one of renegotiation than cancellation. The fundamental logic of many of the BRI in developing countries neighbouring China remains intact. Such is the need for investment in these countries that Chinese proposals for new bridges, highways, railways, power stations and other crucial infrastructure remain alluring.

It is five years since Mr Xi’s pair of speeches in Astana and Jakarta launched the BRI. Since then, much of what China does outside China has become associated with the BRI. At one stage, this was true of much within China as well, where almost every region and institution sought to associate themselves to the leader’s big initiative.

Five years later, it can come as no surprise therefore that some of the projects that were brought under the broader BRI umbrella have encountered issues. One consultancy, the Washington-based RWR Advisory Group, has estimated this number to be around 14 per cent. This number does not seem too high when one considers the surge in project announcements that followed Mr Xi’s speeches in 2013.

It is also useful to dig into the detail of the projects that are being repeatedly highlighted as problematic. Three prominent cases are in Pakistan, Malaysia and Myanmar. But rather than revealing consistent flaws in the BRI’s design, each of these cases derive in part from a push by local governments to renegotiate some BRI projects.

With both Pakistan and Malaysia, an election appears to have precipitated the change. The election of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in Malaysia led to dramatic changes within the country, including a general re-accounting of some of the deals that had been signed under the former government with China.

The most prominent were a series of pipelines and the East Coast Rail Line. After a visit to Beijing, Mr Mahathir seemed to cancel them all, but subsequently, it has emerged that while the pipelines were put on hold until the country was able to deal with the “internal fiscal problems” he had inherited, the ECRL has instead entered a period of re-negotiation as both sides seek to keep the project moving.

Mr Mahathir’s public rhetoric has expressed concern about China, but he has also repeatedly stressed the importance of Chinese investment into Malaysia.

The case is similar with Pakistan, where the election of Imran Khan as prime minister led to a change in public rhetoric in Islamabad. Specifically, it has helped crystallise a series of complaints about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that had been rattling around the Pakistan government.

This was given a boost through public statements by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and a bipartisan letter from the US recommending confronting China over the BRI in general and CPEC in particular.

Yet, the reality is that this has not resulted in massive changes to CPEC. Pakistan’s balance of payments crisis has prompted a push by the new government to seek new loans or debt rescheduling between Saudi Arabia and China. Following his inaugural visit to Beijing, Mr Khan agreed to a joint statement in which the two countries “dismissed the growing negative propaganda against CPEC”.

They also announced the creation of a new working group “on social-economic development to assist with livelihood projects in Pakistan”.

In fact, the active pushback on CPEC projects took place before Mr Khan’s election, with the decision to reject a proposal to build the Diamer-Bhasha Dam taking place when Nawaz Sharif was still in power. This was widely touted as evidence that Pakistan was not simply going to take every infrastructure project that China wanted to do in the country.

Finally, there is the case of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, a massive port project that is in some ways one of the precursors to the BRI, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar BCIM Economic Corridor. Seeing how the international mood was shifting against Chinese investments, Naypyidaw appears to have taken advantage of the situation to renegotiate the port deal.

Part of a much bigger Chinese investment that includes Special Economic Zones and pipelines, the project is one that is clearly important to China. The re-negotiation ended up with the size of the project being cut back considerably (reportedly from $7.2bn to $1.3bn), with Chinese investor CITIC still the biggest single partner on the project holding a 70 per cent stake.

Reflecting the positive tenor of this negotiation, Myanmar officials in September signed an agreement in Beijing to create a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. While this may appear to dilute the importance of a pre-existing Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, it certainly does not suggest that Myanmar is vociferously turning against the BRI.

Doubtless, some of this re-negotiating is a product of each other. The press coverage to emerge from Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the reports that the country ultimately signed over a 99-year lease on the port to a Chinese firm, have all become something of a byword for BRI concerns. Leaders in capitals like Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur and Naypyidaw all saw an opportunity to push back on terms themselves.

It provided easy domestic wins, while also being something that they knew they were likely to win given China’s need for the BRI to be seen to be continuing to move forwards. For both the idea of scrapping BRI within their countries was never really on the table. The underlying logic and general trend of Chinese investment in these countries continues to hold.

What has accentuated the negative narrative in the public discourse has been Washington’s attempt to harness this pushback into its broader conflict with China. Donald Trump’s administration has led an increasingly aggressive bipartisan push against China in numerous different fields.

Yet fought on these terms, this is a losing battle for Washington. In many cases the countries in question are developing countries that need investment. As Chinese neighbours, there is a natural logic in them trying to tap the Chinese economic boom, and improving their regional connectivity.

A far more productive response can be found in Washington’s decision to super-charge the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, offering a funding boost for e-infrastructure investment in south-east Asia while encouraging other regional powers like Australia and Japan to focus their efforts on specific projects in developing countries currently considering BRI investment.

This is the sensible response to BRI, as it both understands the logic of the projects in these developing countries and offers a logical alternative that they can choose. This is a response that far more effectively captures the broader logic of re-negotiation that is visible across BRI countries.

Five years since the announcement of BRI, it has grown to become a synonym for China’s outward investment strategy and broader foreign policy. As is natural with any major effort like this in foreign policy by a big power, it is raising concerns in countries impacted along the way.

What is essential to understand is the logic of this pushback which is not part of a broader conspiracy, but rather a set of individual reactions that are taking place at the same time. Keeping this understanding in mind will enable the world to better respond to the BRI and China more generally, while also remembering that the broader vision is one that is appreciated in some parts of the world as much as it is feared in others.

The writer is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

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