Eric's Insight: Time for China, ASEAN to step up connectivity
The Lead Implementing Body for Sustainable Infrastructure (LIB-SI), ASEAN Secretariat, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Multilateral Cooperation Center for Development Finance (MCDF) co-organised a workshop on Post-Covid-19 Infrastructure and Connectivity in Southeast Asia on 26 April.
The LIB-SI of ASEAN was set up in 2018 to spearhead the development of sustainable infrastructure among member states, white the AIIB and MCDF are multilateral development finance initiatives launched by China.
Given the global economic setbacks inflicted by the ongoing Covid outbreaks and Russia-UKraine conflicts, it is more than relevant for China and ASEAN to strengthen infrastructure and connectivity, so that the Asia-Pacific region could take the lead in post-Covid recovery.
The online workshop on Post-COvid-19 infrastructure and connectivity in Southeast Asia. Photo courtesy/ASEAN Secretariat
Since China rolled out the vision for joint pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015, infrastructural connectivity has been on the top of agendas, and China-ASEAN cooperation in this regard has made strides in the communication networks of railways, highways, air routes, waterways, power grids and e-commerce.
In September 2016, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 was adopted by ASEAN Leaders at the 28th/29th ASEAN Summits in Vientiane for a seamless and comprehensive connection within the ASEAN community.
Over the years, construction of the China-Laos railway, the China-Thailand railway, the Chinese section of the China-Myanmar railway, and the Vientiane-Vangrieng highway were kicked off one after another.
Joint patrol on the Mekong River was continued by law-enforcement officers from China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand; the Chinese section of the China-Vietnam railway was sped up; and the number of air routes between the Chinese and ASEAN destinations has been on the rise.
The less privileged in ASEAN countries benefited from the all-round connectivity. “The enhanced connectivity cooperation between China and ASEAN is pivotal in the fight against poverty in the region,” said Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez in 2019, adding battling against poverty matters in ASEAN.
The 10-member block and China agreed in November 2019 to facilitate regional all-around connectivity by synergizing the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) at the 22nd ASEAN-China summit.
Both have five priorities for cooperation. The MPAC 2025 focuses on sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility, while the BRI cares for policy coordination, infrastructural connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and closer people-to-people ties.
The agreement was followed by the Covid outbreak in early 2020. But even in the stormy days, construction of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway was making progress, and the Chinese BRI and the Philippines 3B project was further aligned. In 2021, China-Laos railway was put into service.
A section of the China-Laos railway in surburban Vientiane. Photo/Xinhua
Possibilities in the sea
The online workshop shared information and exchanged views on investment and policy strategies of some multilateral development banks (MDBs) and facilities that can be tapped by governments. It also touched on infrastructure challenges and opportunities in several ASEAN states.
As China’s connectivity with continental Southeast Asia has been strengthened by the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, the China-Laos Railway and Joint patrols on the Mekong River, the future connectivity focus should be shifted somewhat to the maritime Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines in the East ASEAN Growth Area.
At present, Indonesia is building a new capital and considering connecting its eastern region with the southern Philippines. The BRI vision mentioned smooth land-water transportation channels, port cooperation, increase in sea routes and the number of voyages, and information technology cooperation in maritime logistics.
Emphasizing cooperation based on the MPAC 2025, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) also touched upon maritime safety and security, sustainable management of marine resources, addressing marine pollution, and technical cooperation in marine science collaboration. So there exists much potential to be tapped in bilateral maritime cooperation.
Since China, Indonesia and the Philippines have agreed in April to further align the BRI with the AOIP during the foreign ministers’ meetings, China is expected to give full play to its infrastructure advantages in the initiatives.
Given the individual national conditions, the BRI needs to be specifically matched with the Indonesian “Global Maritime Fulcrum”, the Philippine “Build, Build, Build” initiative, the Vietnamese "Two-Corridors and One-Ring" plan and the "Thailand 4.0" strategy.
Seamless connection of China-Thailand and China-Vietnam railways has sped up, and the communities with a shared future between China, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are gaining steam, contributing to the larger China-ASEAN community of a shared future.
The Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2021-2025) was adopted in November 2020. So long as the Covid outbreaks are brought under rough control in the region, the two sides should focus on its effective implementation, injecting strong impetus into common prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.
(The writer Eric Wang Shixue is an English editor with the Mekong Magazine based in Kunming, Yunnan province. The view in the article does not necessarily represent that of Yunnan Gateway.)