China’s Belt and Road (BRI) has taken a beating, but its central feature of big infrastructure projects will remain recognizable for years to come.
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Cross-border infrastructure is the next frontier for the economic integration of the Indo-Pacific. As liberalization has driven down regulatory barriers to trade and investment, today it is physical linkages-the road, rail, shipping, energy, and telecommunications connection between economies–which are the principal challenge for regional integration. Indeed, the Indo-Pacific is plagued by a range of ‘infrastructure gaps’, which have arisen as governments have struggled to supply infrastructure at the pace and quality required by their high-speed growth. Estimates suggest that $1.5 trillion of new investment per year, every year, will be required to unlock the region’s developmental potential. Building better infrastructure within and between economies is a top priority for all governments in the Indo-Pacific.
Southeast Asia is home to many of China’s most high-profile Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, including Kyakpyu port in Myanmar, a high-speed railway in northern Laos, and now-stalled rail and pipeline projects in Malaysia. While these physical infrastructure projects have attracted widespread attention, China’s involvement in the region’s digital infrastructure has been far less examined despite holding the potential to have even greater strategic importance in the coming years.
Until Chinese officials improve transparency standards, the international community should provide better alternatives to Chinese infrastructure loans and publicize the perils of opaque approaches to building infrastructure. Leaders in recipient countries must also demand greater transparency — or risk drowning in the murky waters of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Reconnecting Asia tracks infrastructure developments across Eurasia, a vast landmass that includes 60 percent of the global economy. Every day, new projects are announced; some advance, while others encounter obstacles. Here is a selection of projects and trends we will be following in 2019.