Malaysia Pulls About-Face Ahead of China’s Belt and Road Forum

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In a twist, China has announced that it has persuaded Malaysia to resume a canceled rail project worth $10.7 billion. The sudden about-face by Kuala Lumpur, which had earlier rejected the Chinese-funded project, will be a big boost for China ahead of a Belt and Road Forum in Beijing later this month, say analysts.

China is hosting its second annual Belt and Road Forum from April 25 to 27 in Beijing. The event is likely to include the heads of state and governments of 40 different countries and officials from 60 others as Beijing tries to win more support for the trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI.

In recent months, the initiative has faced tough challenges as Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Malaysia canceled or reduced the size of previously negotiated deals. Although Malaysia is back on board, it has forced China to accept a 30 percent reduction in the price of the project.

The reworked deal with Malaysia highlights how China is trying to face up to widespread criticism about the financing costs of its projects and concerns expressed by experts and government leaders around the world that the projects are nothing but diplomacy debt traps.

“I think China is trying to make changes. But it is trying to do too much too quickly and with too much skepticism facing it. No wonder it’s having a torrid time,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

Analysts said it is likely that the forum will be mostly about optics, but some real deals could be finalized. Given the heavy criticism about the projects, there will be high expectations from participants, which Beijing has said will include 40 heads of states and governments.  

“They will presumably want something more than mere protocol. Even the promise of deals is better than none at all,” Brown said.

Analysts add that, despite the criticism of the plan, which has been loud at times, the BRI has been able to attract dozens of foreign governments and has been backed by institutions like the World Bank because it is offering to build much-needed infrastructure and help foot the cost.

“The reason so many countries are interested in BRI is because China is offering something no one else is and there is genuine demand for what BRI represents,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Still, it has not been easy for Chinese leaders to wade through the skepticism and sometimes strong opposition to the program from the United States’ and China’s neighbor, India. Critics see BRI as China’s attempt to impose financial imperialism on economically weak but strategically located countries. Many have also raised questions because of the lack of transparency surrounding the projects.

Recently however, there have been signs China is modifying the program to suit the needs of its customers, particularly those like Malaysia and Italy, which are not as desperately in need of Beijing’s financial largesse and deep pockets. Italy recently joined the BRI bandwagon after visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping provided the kind of assurances Rome sought.

“Chinese regulators realize they need to be pragmatic if these projects are to be successful, especially where there is local pushback on political and societal levels,” said Andrew Polk, partner at Beijing-based consultancy firm Trivium China.

There are still serious questions about the kind of changes that Beijing is ready to make. Some analysts believe that China might offer better financial terms and stop its practice of flooding foreign projects with Chinese workers; however, they say Beijing is unlikely to make changes in crucial areas like the transparency of deals and Chinese companies involved in overseas projects.

“Beijing could make the terms of deals public, which would be a major signal of change, but no indications of that happening soon,” said Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Greater transparency would constrain Beijing’s ability to funnel cash through BRI projects to its friends in high places,” he said.

There have been problems even in places where Chinese projects have proven to be successful in terms of implementation. For instance, Chinese companies have ensured the commercial success of the Greek port city of Piraeus. “But its political impact is mixed. Greeks might welcome Chinese investment, but they don’t want China’s environmental or labor practices,” Hillman said.

The U.S. recently described BRI as a “vanity project” and announced it would not send a high-level delegation to the forum. Analysts are wondering if the U.S. will stay away from the meeting altogether.

“The U.S. has made its position clear. It opposes the BRI. Attendance under the current circumstances with the trade war unresolved would be odd,” Brown said.

Haenle said he believes the U.S. should engage with the BRI along with its friends and partners.

“The U.S. is right to point out the flaws in the Belt and Road Initiative, but if it wishes to see them corrected, it must also put forward its own alternatives and refrain from knee-jerk reactions,” he said.

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