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China has been working towards enhancing connectivity with the Southeast Asian nations under the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. This initiative, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will give a new impetus to regional and global connectivity. China’s connectivity strategy seems to be closely aligned with its military modernisation to ensure maritime security along the key sea lanes of communication. As Beijing’s aspiration to become a maritime power has been articulated, it will be difficult for China to overlook the strategic significance of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is imperative that the development of transport infrastructure for connectivity between China and Southeast Asian countries will have strategic implications across the Western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the People’s Representative Council of Indonesia in October 2013 proposed maritime partnership between China and the ASEAN countries to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In addition to maritime connectivity, China is working on the China-Laos, China-Vietnam, China-Malaysia and China-Thailand railway projects as well. Also, China is developing China-Laos, China-Vietnam and China-Myanmar cross-border economic cooperation zones. The China-Thailand rail line via Laos will be part of the ambitious China-Singapore rail link. In this regard, the beginning of the construction of the East Coast Rail Link project in Malaysia on August 9 this year is of great significance.

 

In fact, the coastal states in Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia and the only landlocked country Laos would take part in the BRI to build highways, railways and sea ports to realise the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. However, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam would provide nodes connecting the Belt and Road. The Belt stands for the continental sections of the Silk Road while the Road is the maritime domain of the Silk Road. For example, development of the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor would connect the inland cities to the sea ports in the coastal areas. Thus, the Belt and Road are complementary to each other. Therefore, infrastructure development points in the direction of building land-and-sea transportation channels for supporting and sustaining major inland cities along the Belt and port cities which constitutes the Road. As a matter of fact, China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor would constitute international transport routes connecting core cities along the Belt and Road and industrial parks.

 

Under the BRI, China is looking forward to enhancing cooperation with Vietnam to gain access to Haiphong port for the landlocked south-western region of China. It has been constructing a new standard gauge rail line connecting Kunming and Hekou in its Yunnan Province. Hekou and Lao Cai are border towns on the two sides of the China-Vietnam border. To extend this rail line further to Haiphong port in Vietnam, the two sides have begun negotiations for construction of Lao Cai-Hanoi-Haiphong rail line. Yuxi, a town about 90 kilometres to the south of Kunming is the point of intersection for the China-Vietnam and China-Laos railways.

 

As part of the plan to make Laos a land-linked state, construction work on the China-Laos railway project began in December 2016. The rail line stretching about 414 kilometres will connect Boten on the Chinese border to Vientiane on Thailand’s border. China-Laos railway would play a key role in bridging the transport infrastructure gap to build China-Singapore railway, which is a part of the Trans-Asian Railway network. This line will connect Vientiane and Nong Khai across the Mekong River to connect Thailand to China’s rail network via Laos.

 

On 11 July 2017, Thailand approved the first phase of a high-speed railway that will connect Yunnan Province of China and Bangkok. The project is part of the ambitious China-Singapore railway. In December 2014, the two sides signed the MoU to build rail lines connecting Nong Khai, Bangkok and Rayong in Thailand. Interestingly, the railway line connecting the border town of Boten and Vientiane in Laos will connect with the high-speed railway projects in China and Thailand.

 

Cambodia is also a key partner of the BRI. China has invested in the construction of Phnom Penh Autonomous Port on the Mekong River and Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SEZ). In addition, China has expressed interest in building railways to connect Cambodia with other neighbouring ASEAN states.

 

Many key infrastructure developments under the BRI framework are taking place in Malaysia. The Malacca Seaside Industrial Park and other proposed port projects in Malaysia signify the revival of Zheng He’s voyages to the Southeast Asian countries and beyond. The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on port alliance between China and Malaysia is an indication of burgeoning maritime partnership. Also, China has gained access to Kota Kinabalu port for its navy. Another major development is the ‘Peace and Friendship’ joint naval exercises conducted by China and Malaysia for maritime security near the Strait of Malacca.

 

In Myanmar, China is planning to build a deep-sea port and special economic zone in Kyaukpyu. Interestingly, China has been discussing the feasibility of building the Kyaukpyu port since the 1990s. Moreover, the two sides signed an agreement for the joint development of Ayeyawady River Corridor in May 1997. Under the Western Development Programme, Yunnan Province began to lobby for construction of international passages linking Yunnan and the Southeast Asian countries. China and Myanmar had signed MoUs on rail and road corridor projects. The proposed Ruili-Kyaukpyu road and rail corridor will help China to secure a shorter route to the Bay of Bengal. However, the railway project has been cancelled while negotiations have been going on for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. Nevertheless, the energy pipelines and Kyaukpyu deep-sea port and Kyaukpyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine state of Myanmar will definitely enhance China’s presence in the Bay of Bengal.

 

Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is the blueprint of China’s connectivity strategy. As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, the two most important aspects of the document are the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor. Moreover, it emphasises construction of ports, port cooperation, land-water transportation channels and multimodal transport system. This arrangement also includes Lancang-Mekong River navigation.

 

The white paper on Development of China’s Transport provides an interesting account of China’s connectivity strategy. It underscores the importance of building a comprehensive transport network within the country and constructing passageways that extend beyond its borders. In addition, the Maritime Silk Road will enhance maritime connectivity through construction of strategic ports in Southeast Asia and building port alliance. Similarly, Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative envisages building the China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea Blue Economic Passage. This economic passage constitutes the South China Sea and the coastal states in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the document also points out the progress made in Malaysia Malacca Seaside Industrial Park, the Kyaukpyu port and SEZ in Myanmar, and the Sihanoukville SEZ in Cambodia.

 

Though many Southeast Asian nations have agreed to participate in BRI, there are a wide range of security and strategic challenges to the maritime connectivity domain. In fact, the disputes over the South China Sea islands remain the most complicated issue. Therefore, China’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asian nations is aimed at enhancing mutual trust and cooperation with these countries to strengthen cooperation in various fields. Of all the issues, enhancing maritime security cooperation with the Southeast Asian countries will be a priority for Beijing. Furthermore, maritime connectivity would have strategic implications in the Indo-Pacific region. These developments in the South China Sea and China’s connectivity projects undertaken in the Malaysian Peninsula along the Strait of Malacca would inevitably raise India’s concerns. In South Asia, development of Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan have been fuelling tensions in the Indian Ocean region. Subsequently, the strategic importance of Andaman & Nicobar Islands will increase for India’s security and maintenance of peace and stability in the region.

 

These developments in India’s neighbourhood would enhance competition for access to markets and resources between China and India. As China also strengthens maritime security and military cooperation with these countries, security dynamics in the region will be an area of concern. Most importantly, China’s increasing influence in South and Southeast Asia under the framework of BRI has wide-ranging strategic implications in the Indo-Pacific region. As China aspires to become a maritime power and enhance its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, rivalry in the region would require new security mechanisms to deal with the changing power dynamics. The failure will give birth to security dilemma and periodic tensions. 

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.