The Belt and Road: China's "Community of Destiny" for Southeast Asia? Asie.Visions, No. 113, June 2020
As a frontline zone and a pivot, Southeast Asia is both a testing ground and a showcase of China’s ambitions in developing a grand cooperative scheme. Creating mutually positive linkages is crucial for both partners, if not for the same reasons.
This paper explores the impact of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship program, on Southeast Asian States and ASEAN as an institution. The BRI is both good and mixed news for Southeast Asia. On paper, the program provides substantial economic stimulus for regional development, penalized by the absence of infrastructure, or by dilapidated ones; it should help better connect the region’s abundant natural resources, its growing markets and manufacturing hubs. Potentially, the BRI is a game-changer. Its transformative impact on economies can be paralleled with the economic stimulus created by the US and Japan in the early 1970s. What is striking is the pace of change: six years after its launching, measurable achievements can be observed. China is currently an unparalleled force for shaping Southeast Asia’s future.
However, nothing comes as free, especially considering the huge investment level. Yidai Yilu provides a branding opportunity for Chinese companies to be expansive, with smiling diplomatic presentation touting inclusiveness and “win-win”. But political, financial, ecological and/or security risks have not been sufficiently evaluated. It is leading to a mode of development with new rules of the game; new norms, regulations and practices that might not be compatible with previous standards or with the traditional opening of the region to global ones. Finally, China might be tempted to attach implicit strings and use the initiative as a convenient, yet vague, vehicle to expand its grip over the region, project itself as its “natural leader” and accelerate “a return to the center”. As the driver of major rapprochements, it could lead to decisive shifts in the alliance system; for Southeast Asia’s traditional partners, it induces ruthless, systemic competition in a context of intensifying rivalries.
Southeast Asia is central to China’s ambition to be reckoned as a global power. Beijing sees it as a key link in the connectivity chain. The region intends to capitalize on this perception to build its future. The Southeast Asian states’ position on the world stage and on trade routes is directly affected by the way they manage the densification of their connections with China and the resulting Chinese power leverage on their future; the lack of a coherent alternative and/or strong engagement for an ASEAN integration scheme might increase regional vulnerability.