China’s Belt and Road Initiative is ushering in a new era of economic connectivity and geopolitical maneuvering in Southeast Asia. A discussion about the initiative and its implications unfolded at Stanford University on Oct. 11.
Comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the BRI seeks to deepen trade and investment ties while reshaping infrastructure and transportation networks across Asia, Europe and Africa.
With expert insights from Min Ye, Gita Wirjawan and David Gordon, the event, titled “China’s BRI and Southeast Asia: Separating Fact from Fiction,” moderated by Jean Oi, dissected the intricate web of interests and ambitions at play in this transformative initiative.
The discussion comes at a time when nations in Southeast Asia find themselves at the crossroads, facing both unprecedented opportunities for economic growth and challenging questions about sovereignty and influence in the face of China’s expanding reach.
With China’s investments pouring into the region, stakeholders are left to decipher whether the BRI is a beacon of prosperity or a geopolitical puzzle.
BRI has been hailed for fostering stronger ties among Southeast Asian nations. The China Laos Railway, which resulted in an increase in Chinese tourism and trade, is an example of this.
However, there are also concerns about nations like Laos becoming too dependent on China.
“I would say the BRI initiative fosters stronger ties among Southeast Asian nations,” said JB Lim, a student in International Security at the CISAC Interschool Program at Stanford University, who has done research projects on the BRI especially on its influence on Southeast Asia in the past few years.
“So while [the China Laos Railway] strengthens bilateral ties, Laos is trying to ensure its economy doesn’t become overly reliant on single countries,” he added.
“If one country in Southeast Asia is caught in between China and the U. S… they’re relying on China for economic purposes, but relying on the U. S. for other purposes, they have to be able to handle the middle ground and realize that you don’t want to become an ally of one area but then become the enemy of another,” said Anne Wen, who is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University in Beijing, China where she is obtaining a degree in economics and management.
The majority of her coursework is in Chinese politics and one of the most commonly discussed topics in her classrooms is the U. S. and China dynamic.
Wen observed that Southeast Asia countries are usually “the scapegoats for a lot of problems.”
“They should not be the ones to blame, but it’s very difficult to defend themselves, and so they have to take preventative measures to ensure that when international tensions do arise, they’re not kind of caught in between and don’t know which side to fall on or lean on in that case,” Wen said.
China’s BRI is influencing Southeast Asia in major ways. The initiative brings undeniable economic benefits, often causing countries to overlook political or territorial disputes.
“If these countries are reliant on China for economic growth and suddenly China cuts their resources or China issues this type of threat, either for national security purposes or other reasons, these countries, especially in the Southeast Asia areas where they’re so reliant on China, won’t have a lot of choice,” Wen said.
One key issue is how the initiative at times puts countries in debt. It’s called a debt trap, which is being manifested in the mutual contracts between China and countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya.
“So the idea is that you sign a contract for infrastructure if you do not complete it in time or do not really yield profits as expected or clarified in the contract,” said Jerome He who does research about Chinese military strategies. “You might have to default the project and probably hand over the possession of property of one piece of country to China.”
“Is that really China’s intention behind it to put people in debt?” asked He, a resident of Shenzhen, China. “But I think that’s certainly one of the economic difficulties or fair expectations for many of the receivers or receiver countries to have.”
Some of the economic challenges include debt dependency, transparency issues and economic imbalance.
“Sri Lanka handed over its port to China on a 99-year lease due to its inability to repay loans, and this kind of serves as a cautionary tale for other nations trying to ensure sustainable financing,” Lim said. “Also, the proper due diligence and transparent negotiations can prevent potential financial pitfalls in these areas.”
“There will be ethnic tensions on the ground be it between locals like Chinese Singaporeans, Chinese Malaysians, Chinese Thai people and people who are caught in between, especially people with straddling two identities, be it China and another type of identity that they have will find it much more difficult as the countries that are focus on their own family heritage and culture, kind of our war with each other,” Wen said. “You can grow up in one place, but call another place home, and those dynamics will become more tense as these two countries are literally fighting.”