In early October, Indonesia finally launched the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway (HSR), the first HSR in Southeast Asia. Dubbed “The Whoosh,” the edifice is part of a growing portfolio of international projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) banner. Its opening coincides with the tenth anniversary of the BRI and will fortify Beijing’s profile as a catalyst for global connectivity. Two weeks later, the third Belt and Road Forum was convened in Beijing, an event that later this month, is a chance for China to showcase its credentials as a provider of public good.
Indonesia did not bag the game-changing project by chance, nor was Beijing’s choice to bankroll it plain casual. Ten years ago, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the sea component of BRI, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in a speech before the Indonesian Parliament during his state visit. Two years later, the new multilateral development bank was established, approving its first loan five months thereafter. A decade later, the high-speed bullet train linking the Indonesian capital with Bandung, the country’s third-largest city 142 kilometers to the east, began operations.
Whoosh is a milestone for Southeast Asia’s biggest country, nation, and economy, which also leads the ten-member ASEAN. It is the first of its kind in the entire Southern Hemisphere. Beijing rewarded Jakarta’s gamble in choosing it as its partner for the landmark work. It was a crucial endorsement as infrastructure became a new arena for great power competition. The Jakarta-Bandung leg gives China an edge in any proposed extension of the line to Surabaya, the country’s second-largest city, some 700 kilometers further to the east on the main island of Java.
Deals build on the back of decades-old ties
The Indonesian HSR highlights the importance attached by China to history and neighborhood diplomacy. It also offers some insights into Beijing’s flagship BRI and its prospects as it marks its tenth year. Bandung was the venue of the 1955 Afro-Asia Conference that gathered thirty countries from the two continents, many of whom had just won their independence. It is a key itinerary in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which sought to offer a third pole between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The meeting also helped in the creation of the G77 club of developing countries. The significance of the Bandung Spirit in the formative years of PRC’s diplomacy cannot be understated. It found renewed relevance as China positions itself as a leader of the Global South, refuting charges that it is no longer a developing country. With that, funding a project to link the host city 60 years later is a symbolic triumph too good to miss.
The overlap between NAM members and observers and countries that signed on to BRI is no pure coincidence. Crucial players behind the Bandung Conference were among the largest recipients of BRI investments. China’s economic corridors with Pakistan and Myanmar (then known as Burma) include a flurry of port, pipeline, railway, and highway projects that provide China with alternative sea access. Beijing built and operated ports in Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). India is the biggest funding recipient of the Beijing-based AIIB.
Other Bandung attendees, including close neighbors, also obtained Chinese infrastructure largesse. Vietnam’s first metro line and Laos’ first modern, cross-border railway, both of which opened in 2021, were delivered by China. In Cambodia, Beijing built special economic zones, expressways, power plants, and a modern sports stadium. In Thailand, it is involved in the Bangkok-Nong Khai HSR.
Further afield, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia - four of six expansion members of BRICS where China plays an outsized role - also got big Chinese projects. China built and ran Mecca’s light rail system carrying thousands of pilgrims to Islam’s holy sites. It gave landlocked Ethiopia access to the sea via the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway. It is building the central business district of Egypt’s new capital and is in discussion with Iran for the Tehran-Isfahan HSR. In Europe, China is constructing the Belgrade-Budapest railway. Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, is also the seat of the undivided former Yugoslavia, which was a major force in NAM. Hence, China’s success in securing deals in these countries goes far back.
Economics first, geopolitics later
China’s infrastructure credentials are solid. Scale, speed, and track record are unmatched. Before going out, it built massive public works at home, including an extensive HSR network. Chinese companies were already at it abroad even before BRI was coined. Thus, capacity preceded the label, a challenge to any serious contender. For the U.S., it means rebuilding at home should step up to burnish its Build Back Better World pitch.
Domestic headwinds may slow down China’s overseas construction binge, but it is unlikely to halt it. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution did not prevent Beijing from completing the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) in 1975. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed but did not stop BRI’s implementation, nor did disputes with neighbors hinder projects. The Boten-Vientiane railway, part of the longer Lao-China line, was a case in point. The South China Sea row did not bother China’s railway works in Vietnam (Hanoi Metro), Indonesia (Jakarta-Bandung HSR), or Malaysia (East Coast Rail Link).
While solidarity and recognition may have motivated Chinese projects in the past, commercial and geopolitical considerations have greater bearing today. China’s approach of serving civilian infrastructure needs and negotiating possible access later contrasts with America’s network of overseas bases and the desire to expand it. So far, Beijing’s proposition of “economics first with possible geostrategic options” resonates more than Washington’s “military first, economics later.”
The alphabet soup of alternatives to BRI, from the Blue Dot Network to the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, has their work cut out for them. Rivals must go beyond criticizing and pressuring governments to snub Beijing’s overtures, as alternatives take time to break ground and deliver. Otherwise, more countries may get on board with China’s initiatives.