Balancing Visions: Infrastructure Strategies in Southeast Asia with China, Japan, and Taiwan


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has entered a new phase marked by a transformation from large-scale infrastructure projects to smaller, higher-quality endeavors. President Xi Jinping’s recent announcement at the Third Belt and Road International Cooperation Forum unveiled eight pivotal actions to guild this transition. This shift comes as China faces domestic fiscal challenges and mounting international scrutiny. In this article, we explore the implications of BRI 2.0, including its key actions, its impact on stakeholders, and the responses from Japan, Taiwan, and other relevant players.

President Xi Jinping’s commitment to a more qualitative and sustainable BRI. The eight actions outlined signal this shift:

  1. Building a Multidimensional Interconnected Belt and Road: Enhancing regional connectivity to foster efficient regional cooperation.
  2. Supporting the Construction of an Open World Economy: Promoting international trade and economic collaboration while enhancing economic ties with other nations.
  3. Advancing Practical Cooperation: Strengthening practical cooperation, including trade and investment protection agreements.
  4. Promoting Green Development: Incorporating green energy, environmental protection, and sustainability.
  5. Driving Technological Innovation: Actively promoting technological advancements in areas such as artificial intelligence and the digital economy.
  6. Supporting Civilian Exchanges: Encouraging participation from civil organizations and individuals to foster cultural exchanges.
  7. Constructing an Honest Path: Strengthening anti-corruption measures for transparency in BRI projects.
  8. Improving Belt and Road International Cooperation Mechanisms: Enhancing cooperation mechanisms to facilitate smoother BRI progress.

In the subsequent sections, we will explore the implications of BRI 2.0, including its key actions, its impact on stakeholders, and the responses from Japan, Taiwan, and other relevant players. We will delve into the shadows of debt, sole beneficiaries, and geopolitical expansion, analyzing the critical issues faced by the BRI. We will also critically examine the shift from infrastructure to high-quality initiatives, specifically focusing on China’s recalibration of its BRI, which appears to prioritize Southeast Asia. Alongside this shift, we will explore Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, as well as Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), all crucial players in the competitive engagement in ASEAN. Finally, we conclude by analyzing the complex infrastructure landscape in Southeast Asia and its potential consequences. Each section offers unique insights into the evolving dynamics of infrastructure strategies in this dynamic region


Shadows of Debt, Sole Beneficiaries, and Geopolitical Expansion

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), once a beacon of global connectivity and cooperation, has reached a critical juncture a decade into its implementation. This section explores the central issues of debt, China’s benefits, and geopolitical ambitions within the BRI framework.

The Debt Predicament: While the BRI has significantly accelerated infrastructure development across sectors, it has brought an unforeseen challenge: escalating debt due to project delays and cost overruns. Chinese loans, initially perceived as aid, accumulated as debts for participating nations. In response to debt concerns, China shifted strategy towards financial institutions like the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, effectively managing BRI finances. This shift aims to safeguard China’s global influence while minimizing the risk of accumulating government debts.

To address these challenges, the BRI is evolving towards “smaller, more refined projects.” These projects prioritize loan-based financing and emphasize quality and sustainability. China is shifting from a focus on quantity to a more balanced approach, seeking to mitigate the debt predicament while maintaining its global economic prominence.

Sole Beneficiaries in China: Criticism that the BRI disproportionately benefits China emerged because most infrastructure projects were funded, executed, and managed by Chinese entities. This perception shifted during the third Belt and Road Forum, which introduced the concept of “jointly building” to rebrand the initiative. It aimed to dispel the notion that the BRI solely served China’s interests.

Furthermore, China is pivoting towards commercial manufacturing, particularly in sectors like electric vehicles and solar energy, aiming to equitably share economic growth among participating nations. The Belt and Road Initiative’s focus appears to be shifting towards Southeast Asia, as China seeks to alter the perception that the initiative primarily serves China’s interests.

China’s Geopolitical Expansion: Despite claims that the BRI is non-ideological and non-geopolitical, geopolitical objectives become apparent when assessing the shifting attendance at Belt and Road Forums. The presence of leaders from Russia and the Afghan Taliban illustrates China’s efforts to build anti-U.S. coalitions and expand its geopolitical influence.

International entities like the BRI, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and BRICS, while not overtly asserting China’s influence, serve as platforms for extending China’s soft power and aligning countries with its interests. These actions reflect China’s ambition to challenge Western hegemony and subtly reshape the global political landscape, possibly leading to significant implications in the contest for ideological supremacy on the global stage.


The Shift from Infrastructure to High-Quality – A Critical Analysis

China’s recent shift within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from a focus on large-scale infrastructure projects to smaller, high-quality initiatives marks a significant transition. While this move is presented as a response to changing global priorities, it merits a closer examination from a critical standpoint.

Energy Sector: One of the touted shifts is away from traditional energy projects such as coal-fired power plants. This aligns with global environmental concerns and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, it raises questions about China’s commitment to sustainability, as its domestic energy mix continues to be heavily reliant on coal. The emphasis on renewables and natural gas within the BRI is praiseworthy but should be accompanied by substantial efforts to transition China’s domestic energy generation away from coal. Additionally, concerns arise regarding the transparency and environmental practices of Chinese energy companies operating within BRI projects. While the shift towards green energy is promising, skepticism about its implementation persists.

Pakistan’s Thar Coal Power Project. In the past, BRI investments in Pakistan included the Thar Coal Power Project, a massive coal-fired power plant. However, concerns about environmental sustainability and climate change have put such projects under scrutiny. The transition towards cleaner energy options and more sustainable projects, such as solar or wind energy initiatives, would signify a positive shift within the BRI.

Transport Infrastructure: BRI’s transition also affects transport infrastructure projects, with an emphasis on efficiency and sustainability. However, the careful reassessment of these projects is necessary. China has been known to prioritize its interests over those of its partner nations in the past, raising concerns about the actual benefits reaped by host countries. Moreover, the vague nature of the sustainability objectives leaves room for ambiguity and limited accountability. As China seeks to prioritize its economic and geopolitical interests, the countries involved must ensure that the revised projects genuinely serve their development needs and are not just vehicles for furthering China’s influence.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).CPEC has been a flagship BRI project, but it has faced criticism for a lack of transparency in its implementation and doubts regarding its true economic benefits for Pakistan. The shift towards smaller, more efficient projects within transport infrastructure would require that the new initiatives are more accountable, better aligned with Pakistan’s needs, and truly enhance regional connectivity.

Manufacturing Zones: The shift away from older industrial parks to technology-driven zones appears forward-looking. Nevertheless, it requires scrutiny. Previous BRI projects have shown a propensity for facilitating Chinese labor and promoting Chinese-owned companies. The question remains whether the transition towards advanced manufacturing zones will truly benefit local economies and lead to technology transfer. Potential concerns include the quality of jobs created and the extent to which local workforces are genuinely empowered.

The Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The Hambantota Port has been a contentious BRI project, with Sri Lanka struggling to repay the debt incurred in its construction. The shift towards technology-driven manufacturing zones should ensure that countries like Sri Lanka not only receive these investments but also genuinely benefit through technology transfer and job creation, without accumulating unsustainable debt.

Megaprojects: The critical evaluation of enormous projects, such as mega-dams and large-scale urban developments, is essential. While the new focus on sustainability and technological innovation is commendable, the question arises as to why these considerations were not prioritized earlier. It is worth acknowledging that the environmental damage and social disruption caused by mega-projects under the previous BRI model have been significant. Therefore, the shift towards more sustainable initiatives is a step in the right direction. Still, it requires concrete evidence of actual change in practice.

The Belgrade-Budapest Railway. This high-speed rail project connecting Hungary and Serbia under the BRI has faced concerns about its actual economic viability. If the transition towards smaller, more sustainable projects can prevent the construction of projects that might be more about geopolitical influence than true economic value, it would represent a step in the right direction.

Traditional Infrastructure: The modernization of basic infrastructure is a necessary component of any development project. However, the shift towards these projects under the BRI 2.0 does not necessarily absolve China of the controversies surrounding the funding and execution of such projects in the past. There is a need for increased transparency and accountability to ensure that these projects genuinely align with the interests and needs of the host countries, rather than primarily serving China’s economic and geopolitical ambitions.

BRI Investments in Laos. Laos has received extensive BRI investments, including traditional infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. The shift towards modernizing such projects should ensure that the country benefits not just in terms of infrastructure but also by incorporating modern technology and sustainable practices to improve the quality of life for its citizens.

While the shift towards high-quality projects within the BRI is promising, skepticism is warranted. The BRI’s track record has been marred by concerns over debt dependency, environmental impact, and geopolitical influence. The challenge ahead lies in translating these new policy objectives into tangible actions that benefit not only China but also the participating nations. International scrutiny, clear governance mechanisms, and greater transparency are essential to ensure that this transition brings about the positive change it purports to herald. Only then can the BRI truly contribute to global development, sustainability, and cooperation.


Japan’s FOIP Strategy: Competitive Engagement in ASEAN

“The Shift from Infrastructure to High-Quality – A Critical Analysis” delves into China’s evolving approach within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 2.0, highlighting a notable transition from a global-scale infrastructure development strategy to a more nuanced regional focus. As China adapts its BRI to prioritize high-quality, sustainable projects, the primary beneficiaries of this shift appear to be the nations of Southeast Asia. This recalibration aligns with the broader dynamics explored in “Japan’s FOIP Strategy: Competitive Engagement in ASEAN,” as Japan actively seeks to strengthen its presence within the region. The competitive landscape is not solely defined by China’s changing strategies; rather, it is within the context of this shift that Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy competes, and a delicate balance between economic interests and regional values takes center stage.

Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy has been a key element of its foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region. As Japan actively seeks to shape the dynamics in Southeast Asia, it inevitably finds itself in a state of competition with other regional players, including China and Taiwan.

Competing for Regional Influence:

  • Increased Competition: Japan’s FOIP strategy promotes principles such as a rules-based international order, freedom of navigation, and democratic values. While this strategy is designed to strengthen its presence in Southeast Asia, it also inadvertently increases competition with other regional initiatives, particularly China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 2.0 and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). Countries in ASEAN face multiple options and must weigh the advantages of aligning with Japan’s FOIP against those of other regional players.
  • Economic Rivalry: The BRI, FOIP, and NSP all aim to foster economic development and infrastructure investment in Southeast Asia. Japan’s emphasis on high-quality infrastructure and governance aligns with its FOIP strategy, while China’s BRI and Taiwan’s NSP seek to engage in infrastructure projects of their own. Countries in the region may be attracted by the economic incentives and projects offered by all three actors, setting the stage for economic rivalry.

Balancing Values and Interests:

  • Quality vs. Quantity: The FOIP’s focus on high-quality infrastructure, governance, and sustainability sets it apart from other regional initiatives. Japan promotes infrastructure projects that adhere to stringent standards of transparency, environmental sustainability, and economic viability. Countries in Southeast Asia must decide whether they prioritize the quality-driven approach of Japan or the potentially larger and more extensive projects offered by China’s BRI.
  • Alignment with Values: Japan’s FOIP is characterized by its emphasis on shared values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. These values are fundamental to the FOIP strategy and align with the principles of good governance, which are of particular interest to many countries in ASEAN. Regional partners are likely to consider the alignment of projects with these values when choosing their collaboration partners.

Implications for Regional Dynamics:

The competitive engagement of Japan’s FOIP in ASEAN shapes the broader regional dynamics. As countries evaluate the pros and cons of aligning with Japan, China, or Taiwan, the political and economic balance in Southeast Asia can be influenced. This has potential ramifications for trade patterns, infrastructure development, and political alliances within the region.

Adapting to Evolving Dynamics:

Japan, like Taiwan and China, must adapt its strategy to remain a relevant player in the dynamic and competitive landscape of Southeast Asia. Japan’s ongoing challenge is to continue emphasizing the advantages of high-quality projects, good governance, and democratic values while competing with the attractive economic incentives offered by other regional players.

In conclusion, Japan’s FOIP strategy is an example of competitive engagement in ASEAN, where it competes with other influential actors, including China’s BRI and Taiwan’s NSP. The coexistence of these strategies in the region necessitates countries making strategic choices based on their values, interests, and developmental needs. The competitive dynamics will continue to evolve and significantly impact the political, economic, and infrastructure landscape of Southeast Asia.


Taiwan and China: Strained Competition in Regional Influence

Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 2.0 have set the stage for a delicate dance of strategic competition and collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region. Both initiatives seek to expand their influence in Southeast Asia and South Asia, albeit through different approaches and with distinct intentions. It’s clear that Taiwan and China are in a state of strict competition, particularly in the context of regional influence and economic cooperation. 

Competition for Influence:

  • Economic Rivalry: Taiwan and China have distinct economic incentives and investments to offer to countries in the region. While Taiwan focuses on quality-driven projects under the NSP, China, through BRI 2.0, promotes infrastructure development on a larger scale. As a result, countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia have more options for economic cooperation, creating a competitive landscape where each side vies for the attention and favor of these nations.
  • Cultural Exchange: The BRI’s cultural diplomacy initiatives, including language and cultural programs, potentially compete with Taiwan’s cultural outreach efforts. Both Taiwan and China are keen on enhancing people-to-people connections and cultural exchanges. Countries may find themselves having to choose between these cultural programs, which in turn can influence the reach and effectiveness of Taiwan’s cultural initiatives.
  • Security Concerns: China’s expanding presence in the region through BRI projects raises security concerns in some countries. Taiwan has also articulated its security concerns related to China’s military activities in the region. As a result, regional partners may have to navigate these security issues, which can potentially impact their diplomatic and strategic relations with both Taiwan and China.

Balancing Relations with China and Taiwan:

  • Diplomatic Sensitivities: Countries that engage with both Taiwan and China, whether through the NSP or BRI, face the challenge of managing diplomatic relations with both sides. This can be especially delicate in the case of countries that acknowledge the “One China” policy but simultaneously seek collaboration with Taiwan. Striking a balance between these competing diplomatic considerations is a considerable challenge.
  • Strategic Adaptation: As the competitive landscape evolves, both Taiwan and China must adapt their strategies to remain relevant players in the region. Taiwan’s NSP has the advantage of emphasizing values such as democracy and human rights, which can be a compelling factor for countries seeking cooperation. China, on the other hand, promotes its economic prowess and infrastructure capabilities.

Impact on Regional Dynamics:

The intense competition between Taiwan and China affects the broader regional dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. As countries evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of collaborating with either Taiwan or China, the political and economic balance of power in the region is subject to change. This shifting landscape could potentially have ramifications for issues like regional trade, infrastructure development, and political alliances.

In conclusion, Taiwan and China are engaged in a strict competition for regional influence and economic collaboration in the Indo-Pacific. The coexistence of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative 2.0 has created a dynamic where countries in the region must weigh their options carefully, navigate diplomatic sensitivities, and make strategic choices that align with their interests and values. The competitive landscape between these two stakeholders will continue to evolve, and its outcomes will significantly impact the regional political, economic, and cultural dynamics.


Charting the Future: Southeast Asia’s Complex Infrastructure Landscape

In the dynamic landscape of Southeast Asia, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 2.0, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP), and other regional players have set the stage for a highly competitive infrastructure race. This multifaceted engagement offers ASEAN nations a wide array of options, each with its own set of implications.

China, Japan, and Taiwan, through their respective strategies, provide Southeast Asian countries with diverse opportunities for infrastructure development, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges. Japan’s FOIP stands as a symbol of high-quality infrastructure and governance, in harmony with democratic values and the rule of law. China’s BRI, on the other hand, beckons with enticing economic incentives and an extensive project portfolio. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s NSP focuses on fostering cultural and economic ties in the region.

In the midst of these competing strategies, ASEAN nations play a pivotal role. Their strategic choices and actions will significantly shape the future of the region’s political, economic, and infrastructure development.

The nations of Southeast Asia are tasked with weighing the merits of each strategy against potential challenges. Considerations span from economic sustainability and environmental impact to alignment with democratic values. This intricate landscape demands adaptability, as countries simultaneously engage with multiple regional players, carefully balancing relations with Japan, China, Taiwan, and others. Here are the key takeaways for ASEAN nations:

Diverse Development Options: ASEAN countries now have a buffet of infrastructure options at their disposal. This diversity offers the promise of improved infrastructure, economic growth, and a menu of projects to choose from. It’s a bit like a buffet spread, where nations can make choices that align with their preferences.

Economic Rivalry: The intense economic competition among these three major players brings a silver lining for ASEAN nations. They can leverage this rivalry to negotiate favorable terms, driving a hard bargain and ultimately securing higher-quality projects. Reduced debt risk and more substantial local benefits become realistic goals.

Alignment with Values: Southeast Asian nations can now align their infrastructure choices with their core values. Projects that resonate with principles like democracy, human rights, and environmental sustainability are on the menu. It’s all about forming bespoke partnerships that fit their ideals.

Adaptability is Key: ASEAN nations must be nimble and strategic in their dealings with these regional heavyweights. The key is to maintain a balance between economic interests and political values while managing diplomatic relations within this competitive arena.

Evolved Regional Dynamics: As the competition heats up, expect to see shifts in regional politics, economic dynamics, and security considerations. This marks a new chapter in regional relations, and countries must adapt to reap mutual benefits.

Boosted Connectivity: With all three powerhouses prioritizing infrastructure development, Southeast Asia is poised for an unprecedented connectivity boost. This translates into improved trade and economic opportunities across borders, potentially turbocharging the entire regional economy.

In summary, the coexistence of BRI 2.0, Japan’s FOIP, Taiwan’s NSP, and various other regional initiatives offers both opportunities and challenges for ASEAN nations. These countries must carefully evaluate their options, prioritize their values and interests, and remain adaptable to thrive in the dynamic and competitive landscape of Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the interplay between these strategies will significantly influence the political, economic, and infrastructure development of the region. As Southeast Asia continues to grapple with the complexity of these opportunities and challenges, the global community watches with keen interest as this infrastructure race unfolds.

陳建甫博士、淡江大学中国大陸研究所所長(2020年~)(副教授)、新南向及び一帯一路研究センター所長(2018年~)。 研究テーマは、中国の一帯一路インフラ建設、中国のシャープパワー、中国社会問題、ASEAN諸国・南アジア研究、新南向政策、アジア選挙・議会研究など。オハイオ州立大学で博士号を取得し、2006年から2008年まで淡江大学未来学研究所所長を務めた。 台湾アジア自由選挙観測協会(TANFREL)の創設者及び名誉会長であり、2010年フィリピン(ANFREL)、2011年タイ(ANFREL)、2012年モンゴル(Women for Social Progress WSP)、2013年マレーシア(Bersih)、2013年カンボジア(COMFREL)、2013年ネパール(ANFREL)、2015年スリランカ、2016年香港、2017年東ティモール、2018年マレーシア(TANFREL)、2019年インドネシア(TANFREL)、2019年フィリピン(TANFREL)など数多くのアジア諸国の選挙観測任務に参加した。 台湾の市民社会問題に積極的に関与し、公民監督国会連盟の常務理事(2007年~2012年)、議会のインターネットビデオ中継チャネルを提唱するグループ(VOD)の招集者(2012年~)、台湾平和草の根連合の理事長(2008年~2013年)、台湾世代教育基金会の理事(2014年~2019年)などを歴任した。現在は、台湾民主化基金会理事(2018年~)、台湾2050教育基金会理事(2020年~)、台湾中国一帯一路研究会理事長(2020年~)、『淡江国際・地域研究季刊』共同発行人などを務めている。 // Chien-Fu Chen(陳建甫) is an associate professor, currently serves as the Chair, Graduate Institute of China Studies, Tamkang University, TAIWAN (2020-). Dr. Chen has worked the Director, the Center of New Southbound Policy and Belt Road Initiative (NSPBRI) since 2018. Dr. Chen focuses on China’s RRI infrastructure construction, sharp power, and social problems, Indo-Pacific strategies, and Asian election and parliamentary studies. Prior to that, Dr. Chen served as the Chair, Graduate Institute of Future Studies, Tamkang University (2006-2008) and earned the Ph.D. from the Ohio State University, USA. Parallel to his academic works, Dr. Chen has been actively involved in many civil society organizations and activities. He has been as the co-founder, president, Honorary president, Taiwan Asian Network for Free Elections(TANFREL) and attended many elections observation mission in Asia countries, including Philippine (2010), Thailand (2011), Mongolian (2012), Malaysia (2013 and 2018), Cambodian (2013), Nepal (2013), Sri Lanka (2015), Hong Kong (2016), Timor-Leste (2017), Indonesia (2019) and Philippine (2019). Prior to election mission, Dr. Chen served as the Standing Director of the Citizen Congress Watch (2007-2012) and the President of Taiwan Grassroots Alliance for Peace (2008-2013) and Taiwan Next Generation Educational Foundation (2014-2019). Dr. Chen works for the co-founders, president of China Belt Road Studies Association(CBRSA) and co-publisher Tamkang Journal of International and Regional Studies Quarterly (Chinese Journal). He also serves as the trustee board of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy(TFD) and Taiwan 2050 Educational Foundation.