• he initiative is likely to remain a cornerstone of Beijing’s foreign and economic policies, with energy and infrastructure investments a key priority
  • However, Myanmar demonstrates that potential environmental, social and governance risks associated with megaprojects could be a long-term concern

Kaho Yu

Since its launch in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative  has stirred intense international debate over its political-economic impacts and a wide range of associated risks. Chinese spending on the initiative has slowed since 2018, and lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic have further worsened the already significant delays in belt and road infrastructure projects, amid geopolitical tensions.

Regardless of its eventual scale, the plan is likely to remain a cornerstone of China’s foreign and economic policies, with an increased strategic focus on Southeast Asia. Post-Covid-19 economic pressures and the demand for infrastructure investment will drive member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to work more closely with China. The question here is whether the parties involved can work together to achieve a win-win result.

Growing infrastructure and investment gap

Infrastructure investment is crucial to the economic growth and development of Asean member states. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), US$3 trillion of climate-adjusted investments will be needed from 2016 to 2030 to maintain the current development momentum in Southeast Asia. Although these investment needs vary by sector, energy is the largest, accounting for 56 per cent of the total projected investment need, followed by transport’s 32 per cent.

However, it is difficult for existing financial institutions, including the World Bank and the ADB, to fill this funding gap. ADB data indicates that there is an annual investment need of US$210 billion, but infrastructure spending in the region was only US$55 billion in 2018. This gap is set to increase due to the ripple effect of Covid-19 on Southeast Asian economies.

In general, to meet their growth objectives, Asean member states will have to attract more infrastructure investment, especially in their energy sectors. However, according to the Brookings Institute, traditional Western investments in Southeast Asia are either not keeping up with the region’s needs or are turning away from infrastructure. Although the barriers to investment in Southeast Asian infrastructure are the result of many factors, the most prominent ones are environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks.

This gap leaves room for more belt and road investment in Southeast Asia. These outward investments under the initiative are also important in addressing a wide range of challenges faced by China, including slumping economic growth, domestic overcapacity and overproduction, the relatively backward development of western China, and the political instability and security of “neighbourhood” regions near China.

Expats from Taiwan, Hong Kong among those deciding whether to leave Myanmar 11 Apr 2021

The growing role of Asean in the Belt and Road Initiative

China’s economic ties with Asean member states have remained solid, even as Covid-19 continues to batter global trade and investment. Last year, Factset data shows that China’s trade surplus recorded a 27 per cent increase from 2019, and Asean replaced the European Union as China’s top trading partner. Meanwhile, according to the American Enterprise Institute, belt and road investments in Southeast Asia grew from US$16.8 billion in 2014 to US$29.3 billion in 2019, accounting for 27.6 per cent of all BRI investments worldwide. Despite a sharp drop in total belt and road investments last year, Southeast Asia (US$16.9 billion) became the initiative’s largest investment destination, accounting for 36 per cent of the total investment.