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A  new BRI road map?

(File pix) Military manoeuvres and warships should be discouraged in the region as they could be a magnet for opposing vessels. Pix by Ghazali Kori


May 24, 2018 @ 9:23am

THE recently concluded 14th general election and the formation of a new coalition government under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad signify new directions, not only politically, but across all spectrums, as the country continues its trajectory towards developed nation status.

According to Dr Mahathir, the government will pursue sound and sensible economic development policies to address, among others, the nation’s current high levels of foreign debt. Among the first questions posed by the foreign media to the prime minister was the former government’s approach to Chinese investments, in particular the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Dr Mahathir’s initial response was that the government will review all commitments by the previous administration to ensure that the benefits will accrue equally to both parties. He noted that he had personally congratulated President Xi Jinping on the BRI and appreciated the need for land connections, especially rail networks between Europe and Central Asia. China has the technology needed for this purpose, as such railway networks and huge trains would facilitate trade and services between Asia, and Eastern and Central Europe.

The BRI policy focuses on economic prosperity for China and all participating countries through trade and investments. The policy is also known to be a manifestation of China’s vision of being a rising power and a key global trading partner in the 21st century. Although China has officially claimed of not having geopolitical motives under the initiative, there are some underlying concerns by scholars and participating countries that the BRI is a strategic agenda.

Possible scenarios that may escalate tension in the maritime domain include the ongoing overlapping claims in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Indo-Pacific region. Recent developments — such as, the joint petroleum exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and Continental Shelves in the South China Sea, the establishment of the Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ), attempts to designate marine parks and subsequent law enforcement regulations by coastal countries, intensification of military drills, and freedom of navigation operations — have raised concerns among countries in the region. Besides, the recent revitalisation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between India, Japan, Australia, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific, should be taken seriously as such moves could certainly create tensions.

BRI is evolving its approaches on port developments along the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. Some of the port developments under BRI, including Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar; Hambantota port, Sri Lanka; and Gwadar port, Pakistan; are known to have strong military undertones. Besides, China has new interests in projecting developments in Djibouti, Maldives and Colombo and border defence coordination along with the belt and road construction. It is of concern that these approaches may camouflage or be a cover for China’s defence and military intentions.

As rightly pointed out by Dr Mahathir, Malaysia has pursued initiatives such as Asean’s Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) that has been upheld since 1971. In line with this, he said that military manoeuvres and vessels such as warships should be discouraged in the region as they could be a magnet for opposing vessels.

Malaysia has world class construction and other infrastructures and its robust development programmes should attract technology, quality, and best-cost projects; as such it had attracted investments from China. The Chinese are also looking for integrated development in the future encompassing all the possible sectors under the BRI.

Besides BRI, there are also infrastructure-related investments by other economic powers in Asia, such as Japan, which is pursuing “quality” infrastructure development across the Indo Pacific. Thus, it will be advantageous for Malaysia not to be dependent on a single source of investment, but seek investments from various countries. Although such competition-based investments would have the attendant risks and benefits over the long term, in the short term they would prevent domination by any single country in Malaysia’s economic development.

China’s claim of promoting a friendly and peaceful environment in Asean through BRI is much welcomed. Although the BRI has provided significant investments and facilitated trading for China and Asean, the locations of the maritime infrastructure under it has received mixed assessments.

However, enhancing common interests, mutual trust, transparent and environmentally sound infrastructure development would help to moderate the tension and mistrust emanating from the maritime disputes in the region and promote positive cooperation and collaboration.

Sumathy Permal is a Fellow and Head of Centre for Straits of Malacca, Maritime Institute of Malaysia.


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