The ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity (AMPC) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have major shared goals. Both envisage transport connectivity as a way of bringing countries closer together, improving access to trade, investment, tourism and people-to-people exchanges.
Similar to the BRI project, the AMPC calls for a system of roads, ports and railways to link contiguous members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with one another. Given this shared vision, it is evident that this would be a great benefit to developing ASEAN and the Chinese initiative would support the ASEAN nations by advancing regional connectivity.
China has been seeking to advance trade and investment with its economic partners, which the BRI embodies and projects. Through this initiative, China aims to trigger demand for its products by investing intensively in strategic infrastructure projects internationally, and developing economic ties along its old Silk Road to Europe and its newer maritime links in and around Asia and as far away as Africa.
Since 2009, China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner, and since 2011 ASEAN has been China’s third-largest trading partner. Given the vitality and the economic stability of ASEAN and considering the geographical proximity of the region, a key priority of the BRI is ASEAN’s burgeoning economies. ASEAN is a prominent developing economic partner for China and is the priority destination for Chinese businesses and companies.
The Belt and Road Initiative has a crucial role in bridging ASEAN and China, two of the world’s most dynamic economies, by strengthening economic connections. This will also help the growing ASEAN region improve its connectivity among the 10 member states by continuously developing their economic zones in Asia and beyond.
The bloc’s member states formed the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2005, which has improved the linkage among economies, which the BRI will further integrate through the growing regional community by developing infrastructures in the region and improve its trading policies.
The initiative will also improve an infrastructure deficit and support industrial development. The ASEAN region is known to be a fast-growing bloc, and will continue to develop economically with strengthened international and regional linkages.
The BRI will also provide a pathway for China to bolster its relations with the ASEAN nations economically. This will also support China’s project of developing its extensive rail networks to deliver technology and services regionally. This initiative has already seen great achievements in railway construction in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia.
Funding for the Belt and Road Initiative has been supported by the Chinese government and Chinese commercial banks, which speeds up the outcome of the planned infrastructure projects in the region.
Clearly, both the AMPC and the BRI will support and improve China-ASEAN relations, embedded in trade and investments. However, the Chinese initiative does raise some concerns for the ASEAN states.
For example, China may make use of economic incentives to lead ASEAN states into broader cooperation with itself, threatening the regional body’s unity. This may eventually increase Chinese economic might and strategic pathways in the region, pressuring ASEAN members to recalculate their strategic alliances and re-evaluate relations with China regionally and their global interests.
However, the results from the BRI so far have evidently supported the ASEAN need for infrastructure development regionally. It has been estimated by the Asian Development Bank that US$750 billion will be invested annually.
The implementation of the “One Belt, One Road” agenda requires a high level of cooperation and understanding between China and ASEAN and among its member states. With strict enforcement of policies and analysis of risks, this may lead to bolstered economic development and linkages between Southeast Asia and China.