BRI benefits increasingly clear, despite Western smears
Published: Jul 16, 2023 10:35 AM
Photo taken on April 28, 2018 shows the construction site of the Kuantan Port New Deep Water Terminal in Malaysia. To coordinate the development of the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park and improve logistics services, the Guangxi Beibu Gulf Port Group funded the MCKIP and cooperated with the Malaysian government to upgrade Kuantan Port. Photo: Xinhua

Photo taken on April 28, 2018 shows the construction site of the Kuantan Port New Deep Water Terminal in Malaysia. To coordinate the development of the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park and improve logistics services, the Guangxi Beibu Gulf Port Group funded the MCKIP and cooperated with the Malaysian government to upgrade Kuantan Port. Photo: Xinhua

Editor's Note:
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Through the lens of foreign pundits, we take a look at 10 years of the BRI - how it achieves win-win cooperation between China and countries along the Belt and Road and how it increases people's sense of fulfillment in these countries.
In a recent interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin, Ong Tee Keat (OTK), president of the Belt & Road Initiative Caucus for Asia Pacific, senior fellow of Taihe Institute, and former Malaysian minister of transport, shared his views on the BRI. He noted that China-ASEAN collaboration can grow with the inclusion of more human connectivity and cultural engagement.  

This is the fifth article of the series. 

GT: To what extent has the BRI been recognized by local people in Malaysia?  

OTK: By and large, the level of cognizance of the China-initiated BRI remains uneven among the different ethnic communities in Malaysia, with the most BRI-related news reported in the local Chinese language media. 

Physically, the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP) stands out as a BRI landmark in Malaysia. With the Qinzhou Industrial Park dedicated to Malaysian entrepreneurs, in Qinzhou, Guangxi, the twin parks mark the inauguration of economic collaboration between the two countries under the framework of the BRI. 

Regionally, the astounding success of BRI project implementation in both Laos and Indonesia is well remembered as the key milestones of the mega initiative, which looks set to reshape the infrastructural connectivity in ASEAN. 

The China-Laos Railway gives the entire ASEAN a great impetus in its railway connectivity. It has transformed Laos from a landlocked country to one that is land-linked, thus enhancing its economic competitiveness. It also helps to re-invigorate the Pan-Asian railway network that has been left in abeyance for some time. 

On the other hand, the near completion of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railway is all set to make Indonesia the first ASEAN country to be equipped with high speed rail infrastructure. This is anticipated as a well deserved triumph for the BRI and ASEAN.

GT: What do you expect from the future cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries under the BRI framework? 

OTK: Dubbed as one of the hubs for both the maritime and land routes of the BRI, Southeast Asia is anticipated to have more infrastructure development, notably the rail connectivity, under the BRI framework in years to come. 

Alongside the conventional infrastructure, the growing significance of digital connectivity will call for extensive demands for digital infrastructure across the region. This is likely to be the mainstay of the BRI in its next phase of implementation. 

Parallel to this, both the green economy and blue economy are the other twin drivers that may dominate the agenda for China-ASEAN economic cooperation. 

Alongside the digital economy, notably the e-commerce,the green economy is identified as the key driver in the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area 3.0 blueprint. The significance of the blue economy is clearly manifested in the ASEAN Leaders' Declaration on Blue Economy in 2021. 

In view of this, the China-ASEAN collaboration looks set to morph multi-dimensionally with the inclusion of more human connectivity and cultural engagement. All these fall in line with the priorities entailed in the ASEAN 2025 Vision. 

GT: The EU proposed the Global Gateway, and the US proposed Build Back Better World; what do you think are the similarities and differences between these projects and the BRI? 

OTK: Both the EU-initiated Global Gateway and the US-sponsored Build Back Better World (B3W) were rolled out in response to the BRI when the latter is viewed to have gained momentum in its implementation worldwide. 

The initiatives by the EU and the US are primarily geopolitical strategies designed to put China in check across the world. Nonetheless, real-term benefits have yet to be seen, much less the consequential impact on transforming the wellbeing of the beneficiary countries. 

Parallel to this, the funds channeled to the projects under both the initiatives are not at all commensurate with the hype created by the West. The token-like quantum announced so far is more to satisfy the global optics than to address the dire needs of developing and least developed nations in the Global South. 

On the contrary, the BRI infrastructure projects have indeed reshaped the landscape of logistical connectivity in many countries, thus empowering them in their pursuit of economic development. The real-term benefits are widely perceived and appreciated, despite all the smearing and disinformation created by the West's spinning apparatus.

Despite that the allegation of "debt traps" has been repeatedly been used against the BRI, it has long been proven a hoax motivated by geopolitics. The fact remains that the BRI is a trans-national endeavor underpinned by the principle of mutuality in consultation, construction and sharing of benefits. Unilateral coercion is a non-starter. 

GT: Some Western people are talking about "de-coupling" and "de-risking." Both seem to be another way of saying "de-globalization." Do you think "de-coupling" and "de-risking" will affect the BRI? And what role will the BRI play in maintaining globalization? 

OTK: After much hype and hubris, the word "de-coupling" that has been going abuzz in recent years is now deemed "suicidal" by some sober minds in the West. The same batch of China hawks have now switched their geopolitical semantics to "de-risking," talking about an alternative supply chain without China, purportedly to reduce the dependency on China with the inauguration of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). 

Yet, no viable alternative supply chain has ever been identified, beyond the global hype drummed up by the US. Furthermore, the justification for such an alternative does not appear plausible, as the deliberate exclusion of China from any supply chain configuration in the face of any disruption hazards would offer no solution to the mayhem. 

This non-inclusive, if not antagonistic, behavior, may take a toll on the BRI's bid of defending globalization if the existing trust deficit is left unabated. Hence, the forthcoming phase of high-quality BRI implementation will likely witness a trend of heightening human connectivity through civilizational engagement and Track 2 diplomacy.

GT: There has been discussion that the 21st century will be the Asian century. What's your take? What advantages do you think Asia has? How do you view the future trends of cooperation in Asia? And what kind of impact do you think the rise of Asia will have on geopolitics? 

OTK: The pervasive myth that the 21st century is the Asian century will only come true if the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is allowed to enhance the regional economic integration in the Asia-Pacific as intended, perhaps with the inclusion of India and West Asia at a later stage. But there must not be disturbance created by antagonistic forces from outside the region. 

Asia, the most populous continent, is blessed with an abundance of resources and a wide gamut of supply chains which are primarily contributed by China. The potential unleashed is enormous enough to reshape the entire economic landscape of Asia in this century. 

The biggest challenge is the sowing of distrust and discord by the US under the pretext of "de-risking" from the potential supply chain disruption and claims of national security threat in the region. Currently the US is using all the possible tools from the toolbox of geopolitics to alienate and isolate China from the rest of the world, notably its Asian neighbors. 

So long as Asia is free of military conflict, the continent is all set to embark on a trajectory of inclusive development. Disputes between countries could be resolved amicably through positive engagement and negotiation without any external interference. 

A case in point is the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia - the two nemesis in West Asia - brokered by China. The diplomatic triumph has shown that dispute settlement is only possible if the stakeholders can make their own decisions with clear minds. 

The binary choices before them simply hinge upon whose interests their decisions would seek to serve ultimately - to satisfy the pecuniary interests of the war-mongering military-industrial complex and the geopolitical concerns of the big powers, or to allow peace to prevail and pursue economic development for the people's well-being.

The interview took place after OTK participated a Sub-Session on People-to-People Exchange of the 7th Taihe Civilizations Forum, held in Quanzhou, Southeast China's Fujian Province, earlier in July. The event is a part of the 2023 Maritime Silk Road International Documentary Film Festival.