As Belt and Road Initiative dims, China looks to other expansionist strategies

23 Jul 2023 02:58pm
Part of ECRL development in east coast
Part of ECRL development in east coast
SHAH ALAM: Since being launched in 2013 by China’s government, the Belt and Road Initiative has proven to be a controversial attempt at strengthening the aspiring superpower’s trade, economic and geopolitical grip in participating countries.

There have been reports of displacement of indigenous populations, exploitative labour practices, environmental degradation and a lack of transparency and corruption where projects related to BRI have been initiated.

Naturally being heavily dependent on China, Malaysia is a key part of the BRI route, sitting along trade routes thousands of years old between the Indo-Pacific region, a fact that had drawn colonisers in the past, both for its strategic location and natural resources.

While there are several projects linked to BRI in Malaysia, none has down more controversy or will end up costing Malaysia more than the 655km East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) which is being built at a cost RM50.27 billion though the real cost may end up being much higher when all factors are considered.

Widely panned by public transport experts as being yet another “white elephant” it was in reality built due to China’s geopolitical interests, granting the country over land access from the South China Sea with Kuantan Port to the Melaka Straits with Port Klang and cementing its physical presence on Peninsula Malaysia.

Even the two pipeline projects, valued at US$2.3 billion (RM9. 45 billion) - a 600km petroleum pipeline along the west coast of peninsular Malaysia and a 662km gas pipeline in Sabah.

According to then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad “80 percent of the pipeline was paid, but the work completed was only 13 per cent”.

The pipeline projects were frozen and more than RM 1billion from a bank account of state-owned China Petroleum Pipeline Engineering (CPP) was seized.

Of course, Malaysia is not alone in having faced various problems with the negotiation, implementation and results of BRI projects.
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Among the more notorious examples are the Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka which has been given to China on a 99-year lease following that country’s financial problems.

Laos is another “shining” example of the BRI with the 422 km long Boten–Vientiane railway costing US$6 billion (RM 27.3) for one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia while its economic viability and benefit to ordinary Laotians has been called into question.

Sidelined Laotians complain of a Chinese takeover, citing land grabs, the increasing density of Chinese businesses and the 50,000 or so Chinese workers shipped in for the railway’s construction, as they were for comparable Belt and Road projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Learn from the past and avoid future mistakes

While the BRI and its “debt-trap” mechanism is well known and has put off many other countries from participating, China’s government has not let up. It now seeks other means of getting a death grip on countries that are too naïve or too short sighted to recognise the scale of the threat facing them.

Malaysia is also the target of these new moves facing especially intense lobbying and pressure to allow Huawei to participate in Malaysia’s 5G roll-out.

The potential for such a move has already drawn brickbats from Western nations over security concerns. Foreign envoys and tech-giants have already warned that Malaysia cannot eat its cake and have it too.

Easy, cheap “capital and investments” from China are promised as a sweetener in any deal but as far as 5G goes, taking on Huawei will mean losing access to Western technology and investments.

At a time when Malaysia should be wisely hedging its bets and taking a neutral stand, it instead seeks to attempt to play both sides to the detriment of its credibility. Claiming neutrality must be backed with actions but instead Malaysia seems to be pulled closer and closer into China’s orbit.

Naturally the roll out of the “digital Yuan” is another more frightening and disturbing development.

What will Malaysia do if it is forced to accept payments for its goods in China’s digital currency? While the de-dollarisation advocates are jumping in excitement, what in fact will happen is the takeover of our international trade.

Won’t our independence suffer if our foreign trade is dictated by our biggest trade partner that insists that we subscribe to a currency fully within its control?

Some of you might think that none of this will matter, that Malaysia will never be colonised by China but what we are looking at is a slow but sure colonisation of our country through the use of money, technology, media pressure, control of our academia, China is making progress on these fronts every year.

In fact, does anyone believe that Malaysia will lodge a credible protest if its territory in the South China Sea continues to be intruded upon?

While there might be no way to de-couple from China, the push by many countries to de-risk interactions with China is something we must learn from and quickly implement. Malaysia must work with its international partners including Asean when responding to the emergent threat from China.

We must ensure that all business, investments, megaprojects and other dealings are transparent, above board and there must be no compromise if any wrong doing is discovered.

Malaysia has already made a number of expensive mistakes and it is long overdue to hold back and reassess what the BRI has done and what it has failed to do when considering future deals with China.

Trade is important for sure but what is any money worth when we have sold ourselves?

Samirul Ariff Othman is a Political Economic & International Relations analyst. He was previously attached to a leading local think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.