BRI: Entering a new phase
Updated 18:45, 11-Sep-2023
Ong Tee Keat
This aerial photo taken on June 16, 2022, shows a general view of Carnelian Tower (L) and condominiums at Forest City, a development project launched under the Belt and Road Initiative, in Gelang Patah in Malaysia's Johor state./CFP
This aerial photo taken on June 16, 2022, shows a general view of Carnelian Tower (L) and condominiums at Forest City, a development project launched under the Belt and Road Initiative, in Gelang Patah in Malaysia's Johor state./CFP

This aerial photo taken on June 16, 2022, shows a general view of Carnelian Tower (L) and condominiums at Forest City, a development project launched under the Belt and Road Initiative, in Gelang Patah in Malaysia's Johor state./CFP

BRI: Entering a new phase


Editor's note: The article is part of CGTN's series called "New Chapter of the BRI", in which global economists and eminent academics share their views and insights on the development and opportunity of BRI. Ong Tee Keat is the president of Belt and Road Initiative Caucus for Asia Pacific (BRICAP). The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) marks its coming of age amid rising geopolitical tensions. The ambitious mega endeavor weathered through its first decade of inception with vigor. The multitude of orchestrated disinformation designed to discredit it with such malicious labels as "debt trap" fails to impede the BRI momentum worldwide as the initiative snowballs into more areas, notably in the developing Global South.

The triple principle of reciprocity in consultation, construction, and benefit sharing, as embodied in the implementation of BRI projects, has defied all the past dictates of the West, where no trans-border infrastructure projects could ever take off without a plethora of attached conditions that serve only the core interests of the West. From this perspective, the Marshall Plan of rebuilding Western Europe by the U.S. after WWII is clearly not comparable to the BRI.

The latter's inclusivity in engaging with the host countries as compared to the unilateral dictates of the West in identifying the project is, by itself, a clear and plausible rebuttal to the repeated malice in vilifying the BRI as a "debt trap".

The logic is rather simple if the assertion were to be scrutinized rationally and not viewed under the geopolitical prism, as all BRI projects are virtually host-driven. No unilateral interest dictated by China has ever come into play as could have been opined by the propagandists of the West. In this context, the U.S.-led West is apparently judging China with allegations merely based on its own experience and actions towards others.

The oft-cited case of the "debt trap" in the construction of the East Coast Rail Link ( ECRL ) in Malaysia is a classic case of geopolitical hoax in point. The project once stalled after the change of government in 2018 was hyped by the Western media as a purported "pushback" against Beijing's "debt trap". Yet, in reality, the project was hatched by the Malaysian administration long before the inception of BRI. It only came into being when the latter decided to embark on the bandwagon of BRI. It was entirely Malaysia-initiated without any external coercion, much less dictated by Beijing.

Prior to this, the viability of a Sri Lankan port in Hambantota was first called into question in 2017 with the label of "debt trap diplomacy" debuted in the theatre of geopolitical rivalry. The scenario portrayed has it that the controversial port which is deemed non-viable was shoved down the throat of the then Sri Lankan administration by Beijing under the pretext of BRI.

This was later exposed as a despicable hoax by Sri Lanka, which made its own choice to build the port in Hambantota. The pack of lies aimed at stigmatizing China was debunked by the plain fact that the port project was supported by two feasibility studies conducted by a Canadian engineering firm and then a Danish consulting firm. China only became involved and bankrolled the project after Sri Lanka failed to seek funding from the West and India.

In this regard, intriguingly, specific credible policy institutes from the West, such as the Rand Corporation and Chatham House had unambiguously distanced themselves from the prevalence of the " debt trap" conspiracy theory. The claim was virtually pronounced unfounded, albeit still being resurrected time and again to serve some sitting politicians' interests.

The state of anguish in the West over the threatening rise of China couldn't have been more far-fetched when the BRI project implementation was scapegoated for the debt distress in Africa - a vast continent where China has a conspicuous competitive advantage vis-a-vis the West in the geopolitical face-off.

However, the statistics unveiled by Debt Justice, a British campaign charity entity, speak volumes on the matter. Its study reveals that the African countries owe three times more debt to Western banks, asset managers, and oil traders, amounting to 35 percent of the total external debt than to the Chinese lenders, constituting only about 12 percent. The distress was further exacerbated when the much higher interest rate charged by the former to the latter was taken into account. Again, the purported causality between the debt distress in Africa and the BRI implementation across the continent is nothing more than a geopolitical stigmatization of China and BRI.

In reality, the BRI is a game-changer in its own right as it seeks to transform the landscape of regional, if not, global connectivity in all respects. It is a multi-dimensional model of human endeavor, dedicated to enhancing multilateral cooperation in pursuit of sustainable socio-economic development and mitigations of global challenges. The underlying principle is rooted in the aspiration of forging a shared future for humanity, more so in the face of increasing existential exigencies.

The element of symbiosis inherent in the project may remain incomprehensible to the state actors and the military-industrial-media complex who are habitually obsessed with their narrow geostrategic priorities. The bumpy trajectory of BRI has to a great extent been attributable to such obsessional paranoia against China. The proverbial "burying head in the sand" attitude is now their pervasive response in toeing the "political correctness" of the day in the West.

As more and more countries across the world are now embracing the "Global Development Initiative" (GDI) in their pursuit of sustainable development, the BRI has come to a new age of going multi-dimensional in meeting the rising aspirations of the partnering countries.

Alongside the continued relevance of conventional infrastructural connectivity in many parts of the Global South, new emerging drivers of development, ranging from the digital infrastructure to a green economy and even a blue economy, are now well set to transform the model of BRI implementation in certain regions as the mega endeavor is ushering in its second decade.

While the BRI has been continuously seeking to upgrade itself to a higher level of benchmark, it is hardly spared from its rivals' competition, more so from the antagonistic initiatives intended to keep China's sphere of influence in check.

The rollout of the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative by the U.S. and the EU Commission's Global Gateway Initiative are sufficient testaments to such an antagonistic competition. Interestingly, both initiatives target infrastructure development projects under the framework of economic partnership, thus drawing parallels to the BRI.

Be that as it may, private investment-driven initiatives initiated by the West appear relatively dormant and less transparent since their respective inceptions. Ostensibly, China's BRI leaves both the B3W and Global Gateway initiatives trailing in the race quantitatively, in terms of a number of infrastructure projects delivered, as well as the quantum of fund allocation disbursed.

Demands for transparency in the fund trials and outcomes of project implementation as required by the West in scrutinizing the BRI projects seem to have been glaringly absent in monitoring the B3W and Global Gateway initiatives.

Nonetheless, the BRI does not resort to hair-splitting over such the practice of double standards. Neither does it seek to respond to the purported waning prominence of the BRI as was played up by the Western media. Instead, it appears more confident and ready to brace for the growing global demand for connectivity, both infrastructurally and socio-culturally.

As the BRI is making more new inroads in Latin America, once dubbed the "backyard" of the U.S., the post-COVID-19 Southeast Asian region  is now on the threshold of economic recovery. The latter's rail links are projected to grow by 20 percent with a remarkable extension of more than 1,350 kilometers by the end of 2024 as compared to that of January 2023, according to Nikkei analysis on commuter rail networks in countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

This looks set to attract intensified competition from the rivaling U.S.-sponsored initiatives, such as B3W and the nascent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). This is particularly so when the U.S. global geopolitical strategies gravitate more toward the Asia Pacific.

Yet, proof of the pudding is in the eating. Like most of the emerging economies in the Global South, Southeast Asia embraces connectivity in pursuit of economic development and shared prosperity, but is anticipated to remain wary of playing to the great power rivalry in the region, more so between the two global economic titans.

From this perspective, constructive human connectivity through people-to-people engagement via Track 2 diplomacy will understandably stand out as a clear choice that benefits the people across the region.

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