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Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Milestones and Concerns Across Southeast Asia

Passengers on Indonesia's new Chinese-financed and built high speed railway that connects Jakarta with Bandung pose for a selfie before boarding. Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

China held its third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in October, with leaders from Southeast Asia in attendance to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the opening ceremony, the Chinese president Xi Jinping posed with – among others – Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Laos’s Thongloun Sisoulith, Thailand’s Srettha Thavisin, Vietnam’s Vo Van Thuong and Cambodia’s Hun Manet.

Beijing has worked hard to strengthen its ties with Southeast Asian leaders. Through BRI, China has been active in various developmental projects in the region, which comprises ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its observer state, Timor-Leste, and a population of almost 700 million. 

Ten years into the initiative, the BRI received mixed reviews from local media and the general public in Southeast Asia. There were several criticisms, such as environmental neglect, workers’ safety, and issues with corporate social responsibility of Chinese state-owned companies, according to experts CGSP spoke to. On the flip side, scholars think it has been useful as a “partial plugging of [the region’s] longstanding infrastructure gap”.

“There is room for improvement,” said Stefanie Kam, assistant professor at the China program of Nanyang Technological University’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. She also noted that going forward, the BRI’s contributions in the area of climate change and sustainable development would be crucial.

Problems within the BRI come simply from its sheer “massive ambition and scope,” the experts said. But most importantly, further complicating this risk is the political, social and business environments across Southeast Asia that can be tricky, according to Chong Ja Ian – a non-resident scholar at Carnegie China, part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. 

“Infrastructure investments are by nature risky,” Chong said.
There have been various BRI projects built across the region, such as Indonesia’s Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, Laos’s semi-high-speed railway connecting China and the country, as well as Cambodia’s Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport. Some others – including the East Coast Rail Link connecting Peninsular Malaysia’s East Coast and West Coast – are also in the works.

Tourists enter the international departures terminal at the new Chinese-financed and built Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport in Siem Reap province on November 15, 2023. TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AF

“There are frozen projects in Malaysia and the Philippines, only some of which in Malaysia are only just starting up again. Progress on the high-speed railway project in Thailand is slow,” Chong said. 

He continued: “Port and infrastructure development in Cambodia have advanced, but brought along crime, corruption and some displacement of Cambodians.” Meanwhile, political upheaval in Myanmar has tempered the success and even longer-term viability of port and pipeline projects there, Chong noted.

On the environmental front, BRI projects and their local partners have been accused of creating damage. 

“For instance, the Forest City project in Malaysia appears to bring irreversible environmental degradation such as polluted waterways and biodiversity destruction,” Melinda Martinus – lead researcher at the ASEAN Studies Centre of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore – pointed out. 

Soksamphoas “Samphoas” Im – a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center – also highlighted the BRI’s negative effects on Mekong River countries, namely Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos. 

“The BRI-funded hydropower plants have hugely disrupted the livelihoods of local communities who live along the Mekong River, where daily lives depend on the resources in the river,” Samphoas said. 

“The dams have also destroyed the rich biodiversity of the Mekong River,” Samphoas added.

Yet, Guanie Lim – an assistant professor in development studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo – said that to pin all the blame on Chinese firms, especially those that come after 2013, is rather simplistic. Some of the Southeast Asian states themselves have not been properly monitoring the socio-environmental impacts of big projects, he explained. 

“This lackadaisical attitude has been going on for years or even decades before the BRI,” Lim said.

The other face of BRI is its crucial role in helping to build infrastructure in Southeast Asia. On its own, Southeast Asian countries besides Singapore were having trouble mobilizing capital to pursue costly infrastructure projects, according to Lim.

“These issues will likely linger on for at least a few more years because of the region’s reluctance or inability to more aggressively finance infrastructure,” Lim said.

Yet, he believed that there are increasingly more Chinese firms, especially those in engineering and construction, who are eager to grow their portfolio in Southeast Asia amid China’s economic slowdown. 

Public Opinion

Melinda, the ISEAS researcher, said that some analysts, local media, and industry players in the region were very concerned with the political implications of the BRI. Although China is considered capable of filling the capital gaps, many are anxious that their country’s relationship with China is not an equal one.

“In some cases, BRI projects are criticized for not bringing many employment opportunities for the locals, as Chinese companies involved bring their expertise and vendors to help run the projects,” Melinda told CGSP.

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Interestingly, the concerns surrounding the BRI seem to have little effect on the perception towards China in general. In fact, according to a recent survey by ISEAS, Southeast Asians’ distrust of China has dwindled from nearly 60% to about 50% this year. 

Among those who trust China, 47.6% attribute this to China’s “vast economic resources and strong political will to provide global leadership.” Among those who distrust China, 41.4% think that China’s economic and military power can be used to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty, the survey showed. This view is shared strongly in Vietnam (65.4%), the Philippines (62.9%), Cambodia (44.0%), Malaysia (41.7%), Indonesia (35.7%), and Singapore (35.0%).

Despite BRI’s flaws, Samphoas, the Stanford University visiting scholar, said that the initiative could be complementary to Western-sponsored aid. She hoped that experts outside of Southeast Asia, especially in the West, would look beyond calling the BRI as only a debt trap project for developing countries. 

“For many decades, foreign aid and loans from Western countries have only focused on policies and humanitarian works, but little attention was given to more visible needs such as infrastructure development,” she said.

Eventually, Chong of Carnegie China said that BRI-related projects tend to have more success in places where there is not only political support from elites in host states but also places where state capacity tends to be higher and more stable politics. 

“This may be a reason why progress is more obvious in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos,” Chong said. In other words, as Chong puts it: “The BRI is not just a Beijing-centered story.”

Randy Mulyanto is an Indonesia-based journalist.

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