Thursday, September 21, 2017

Long journey for China’s ‘Belt and Road’

China's recent high-profile economic and political initiatives often evoke a sense of travel.

After decades of keeping a relatively low profile, the country has become more assertive with its international interactions. It is now pushing two plans that could have a large impact on its neighbours, turning to the past for inspiration.

The Silk Road Economic Belt is a China-led initiative to better connect the region, stretching west along the path of the old China to Europe trade route.

Officials subsequently announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a ocean-based route counterpart to the Belt.

“The plan is expected to change the world political and economic landscape through development of countries along the routes, most of which are eager for fresh growth,” state news agency Xinhua has said.

The plans have been closely associated with China president Xi Jinping, and references to it have generally been in the context of increase infrastructure development through the region.

In March, according to a Wall Street Journal China Real Time report, Chinese officials fleshed out some of the details. Financing is to come from a variety of sources, including the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a government-backed US$40 billion Silk Road Fund, and a New Development Bank set up by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The report said plans don’t just call for roads, rails and ports, but also for development of oil and gas pipelines, fiber networks, IT, new energy, and biotech.

High-level diplomatic visits by Chinese leaders have been frequent in the region, and they have gained significant backing for their initiatives. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank for instance has 57 prospective founding members, including Myanmar and also usual US allies like Australia and the United Kingdom – though the United States and Japan remain the two most prominent countries to sit it out.

Along with these high-level pushes, China is also working to build better connections with regional non-government organisastions. State-funded China NGO Network for International Exchanges is part of the push, working to develop institutional platforms for exchange and cooperation between China’s NGO and their ASEAN counterparts.

Chinese NGOs are restricted, and some commentators say the planned introduction of an NGO law this year may introduce further restrictions.

Beijing, though, is keen to cement ties with its state-sponsored NGOs and their ASEAN counterparts. It held the second China-Southeast Asia High-Level People-to-People Dialogue in Bali, Indonesia last week. The Myanmar Times was one of the participants sponsored to attend.

Yet journeying to the conference laid open the challenges of the Belt and Road.

Flying to Bali from Yangon usually entails a Southeast Asia stop in a city such as Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, but Chinese organisers were keen to showcase the improving transportation links.

Yet Guangzhou, the scheduled transit airport, was closed due to weather, and the plane had to continue to the Haikou Meilan airport on Hainan Island. The situation greeting arrivals on Hainan Island bordered on the farcical.

Non-Chinese getting off the plane were allowed only a few steps into the airport. Chinese immigration officials greeting the arrivals did not speak English, though they kept asking each non-Chinese passenger the same questions in Chinese, which none of the remaining passengers spoke.

The ancient Silk Road was not only a link of roads and trails, but also people. The mixing of different cultures produced a degree of understanding and mutual respect; clearly, there is some way to go on this front for the Silk Road’s modern counterpart.

Passengers were finally given temporary visas allowing them past the immigration counter, just in time to turn around and board another plane, to Guangzhou and then Kuala Lumpur, a more usual city for transit between Yangon and Bali. What was novel about the journey was the imperative to transit in China’s Hainan Island.

In the end, The Myanmar Times missed most of the soft diplomacy on display. China’s vice president Liu Yangong was in attendance, as were numerous other Chinese and ASEAN delegates from NGOs, business and media.

Reporters were in time to attend discussions on ‘Towards People’s Consensous on Community of Common Destiny” and “Towards People’s Actions for Win-win Cooperation”. A declaration pledging closer cooperation was duly announced.

China NGO Network for International Exchanges, the ASEAN Foundation and the Indonesian Academy of Science announced plans to form a permanent organising committee for future dialogues.

The committee aims to strengthen ties between the roughly 60 countries that are to be included in the Belt and Road initiatives.

China NGO Network for International Exchanges secretary general You Jianhua said all of ASEAN is on board with the Belt and Road initiative.

“We are going to organise more people-to-people meetings to undertake concrete actions leveraging non-governmental actors,” he said.

Yet not everybody appeared to be on the same page. ASEAN is one of the world’s most diverse regions, with some countries such as Philippines and Vietnam in confrontation over ownership of islands in the South China Sea.

“The rise of China as a super power, its influence in the region, and the South China Sea conflict are key issues that we can’t avoid,” said one speaker from Philippines during a panel session.

“How will China make sure or promote peace and security in the region to ahead with its Belt and Road program?”

The event finished with an overwhelming chorus of Chinese cultural songs, accompanied by dances and performances.

The flight back was mercifully less of a headache than the trip to Bali. This time the transit point was Hong Kong – while more out of the way than Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, at least its customs officials are friendlier than Hainan Island. It also ended four days of travel for one day at the event.

As much as the hosts were eager to please, it was clear they were also interested in the views of delegates.

Over dinner at the conference, amid the Chinese dance displays, singers and general pageantry, a senior Chinese official asked what The Myanmar Times thought about the twin Belt and Road initiative. I said I wondered, with all the Chinese involvement, whether there would be room for any from Southeast Asia.