China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has performed tremendously well in connecting China to Europe. In this initiative, the biggest beneficiaries have been Central Asian countries, Central and Eastern European countries etc. Many countries have also expanded their trade into the Chinese market and forged stable connections with the East. Parallelly, China has also invested in many of these countries to boost their economies and transform them into long-standing partners.
The picture may be rosy in some region, yet there seems to be cynicism about China's BRI in others. South and Southeast Asia are one such example of this phenomenon. The countries in this region are wary of the economic, cultural, and political impact of projects within the BRI. At the same time, many countries in the region have also benefitted from it too.
3 out of 4 for BRI in South Asia
The significant players in South Asia are Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Out of these four countries, India is the only one that opted out of the BRI. In Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been officially in action since 2015. The projects include vast infrastructure development in Pakistan, including constructing the deep-water terminal in Gwadar, powerplants and even a railroad from Kashgar to Gwadar (under construction). In Sri Lanka, the BRI presents itself in the form of Hambantota Port. The thriving port is central to the trade activities between China and Sri Lanka.
In Bangladesh, Chinese investment is surprisingly high as they have invested in projects such as the Padma River Rail and Road bridge. China is also investing in Bangladesh's power infrastructure. The BRI seems to be functioning smoothly in Bangladesh as both parties arrive at a win-win situation. Finally, in India's case, there appears to be a significant amount of caution and distance between the two countries that have generally shared a tumultuous past. As the most prominent players in the region, both seem to clash often on economic and diplomatic policies.
Southeast-Asian countries test waters with BRI
China's trade with Southeast Asian countries is already stable and thriving through ASEAN. However, there is still some scepticism when engaging in infrastructure projects promoted under the BRI. There are several projects taking place in the region already. In Myanmar, there are two notable projects underway, first the Kunming (China) to Kyaukhphyu (Myanmar) rail line is under construction and second, the development of Kyaukhphyu port. The future of these projects is currently unknown due to the political upheaval in the country.
Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are some of the biggest beneficiaries of the BRI in Southeast Asia. Although there are exciting projects underway in Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia through the BRI, there are generally pessimistic sentiments. Finally, the Philippines has wholly avoided BRI policies and investment due to local pressure on the governmental authorities.
BRI's primary sector of development is transport and logistics. However, Southeast Asia seems to be benefitting the least from it. For South and Southeast Asia, BRI appears to be a hit and miss situation. However, that has not affected the trade and logistics between these regions, situating itself in decades of diplomatic and economic inter-connectedness. The BRI offers another opportunity for closer cooperation with one of the biggest markets in the world. The defensive approach of many small economies is understandable when faced against a titan. Therefore, there are still untapped opportunities within the South and Southeast Asian economies.