Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been criticized for being a debt trap aimed to help China expand its military dominance across the world. At the recently concluded Mekong-Japan Summit, Japan took a jab at China’s plans and promised that it would offer “quality infrastructure” to Southeast Asian nations.
Japan and Southeast Asia
Japan’s reference to “quality infrastructure” has two meanings. While on the one hand, the term mocks China’s construction quality, it also promises not to enslave countries through loans. “Tokyo’s reference to quality building also takes quiet aim at mounting criticism that China’s offerings often amount to debt traps that are structured to extract sovereignty-eroding terms and conditions when borrowers are unable to repay their debts,” according to the Asia Times.
The summit was attended by representatives from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Of these, Myanmar is where the Japanese can help in a big way at the present moment. The country is facing increasing isolation in the world arena due to its inhumane treatment of Rohingya Muslims. This has essentially pushed Myanmar to depend on China. By providing necessary funds and initiating infrastructure development projects, Japan can help Myanmar cut off their excess dependence on China, a move that will not only benefit the entire region, but also the U.S.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been very active in promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) to counter China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects. “FOIP involves setting up several corridors to promote free and open trade in the Indo-Pacific region. The initiative includes upgrading the Yangon-Mandalay Railway in Burma, establishing the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor in India, as well as the Nacala Corridor, spanning three African countries: Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique,” according to The Epoch Times.
The US alliance
To keep China’s influence under check, the U.S. has initiated talks with Japan and Australia to invest in infrastructure projects. The agreement aims to arrange for investments in areas like transportation, energy, technology, and tourism infrastructure. “This trilateral partnership is in recognition that more support is needed to enhance peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region,” Julie Bishop, former Foreign Minister of Australia, said to Bloomberg.
Countries that take up Chinese loans have a tendency to eventually become indebted to Beijing in such a way that they have no choice but to agree to a settlement as decided by China. The U.S. is betting that the prospect of dealing with a country that offers honest contracts and fair terms will help Southeast Asian nations avoid getting indebted to China.
“We share the belief that good investments stem from transparency, open competition, sustainability, adhering to robust global standards, employing the local workforce, and avoiding unsustainable debt burdens,” said an Australian Foreign Ministry statement (Nikkei Asian Review).
Since the project is expected to be funded by private capital, the taxpayers will not have to bear its burden. United States will invest in the project through the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation which seeks to help American companies run businesses in emerging markets through corporate loans, political risk insurance, and guarantees.
By keeping Beijing at bay, the U.S. calculates that the Southeast Asian region won’t end up becoming anti-democratic. And as long as democracy exists, free trade between countries is possible, benefiting both the U.S. and the entire region.