How the Belt and Road Initiative is connecting South Asia

By Saroj Gautam
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 24, 2023
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South Asia is one of the most disconnected regions in the world in terms of roads and connectivity infrastructure. Recognizing its potential for economic growth, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), proposed by China in September 2013, aims to increase collaboration and connectivity with nations in the region, bolstering mutual development and prosperity. Over the last decade, the BRI has become a massive infrastructure, trade and connectivity project spanning the Eurasian region, the Middle East and many parts of Africa.

At the moment, Beijing has maintained its engagement with South Asian neighbors under the BRI framework, an integrally added value in contemporary Chinese foreign policy with the aim of boosting multi-sector connectivity. China is the largest trading partner of most of the countries in South Asia, but the rising trade imbalance with Beijing has become a political issue in every other capital. Cooperation between China and its southern neighbors is undoubtedly increasing, but the approach to the BRI is not identical. There is tremendous variation in the perception of the BRI in Nepal, Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, as each country has a different approach towards the initiative for their own ends. The BRI's progress in this region can significantly impact the overall outcome of this mega-project. As immediate neighbors, the South Asian attitude toward the BRI is a matter of utmost interest not only for scholars of international relations, but also for global policymakers. 

Kalyan Raj Sharma, a Nepali scholar, has offered an academic feast to BRI enthusiasts by attempting to diagnose the problems and prospects of the BRI in South Asian countries. His latest book, "Belt and Road Initiative and South Asia," is an anthology of articles written by diverse scholars, policy experts and practitioners from South and Southeast Asian countries. The book attempts to provide a clear overview of how the BRI has promoted economic cooperation between China and its southern neighbors and boosted their economies while considering the challenges of the BRI from the perspectives of those countries. 

The chief characteristic that makes this book unique is the way it offers country-specific BRI experiences and fruitful discussions about leveraging the initiative for regional development and integration. It also encourages countries to identify workable project-specific approaches for implementing the BRI for connectivity, with the win-win model as the main mantra.

As a journalist from Nepal, I was impressed by the insightful analysis of the prospects and challenges of the BRI from Nepal's point of view. For example, the authors suggest that if implemented properly, the BRI will reduce the trade gap between Nepal and other countries in the region while uplifting the economy of the nation and the entire region. 

In 2019, China promised to help Nepal turn into a "land-linked" country from a "landlocked" one. The promise aligns with its concept of building a community with a shared future by following the principles of friendship, sincerity, reciprocity and inclusiveness while pursuing bilateral and multilateral cooperation. In the book, readers will find out the importance of enhanced Nepal-China cooperation under the BRI framework via friendly communications. 

The book also offers a picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic has remodeled the panorama of the BRI in South Asia, with some forecasts of major shifts in the modality of the initiative in the years to come. For example, due to China's progress in technologies, such as 5G services, big data and artificial intelligence, BRI investment is expected to increase in more sectors, such as clean energy, green agriculture and healthcare.

Moreover, the book goes beyond South Asia and offers the experiences of Southeast Asian countries in terms of BRI cooperation, including Malaysia and the Philippines.  

There is an old saying in China: "Close neighbors are better than distant relatives." As such, China's policy towards regional neighbors always has stressed peace and collaboration. Its customary friendship with these countries has always been based on principles of peaceful coexistence and multi-sectoral cooperation. With a solid sense of authenticity, this book recommends how promises can be fulfilled between China and South Asia. It attempts to create a platform for debate over many issues related to BRI cooperation and its implementation in different countries in South Asia. 

The book tells us that it is important for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to get involved in BRI cooperation in a feasible manner. The manufacturing sector is one of the weaknesses of South Asian countries, impacting their trade imbalances with China. The book points out that countries could bridge the gap by participating in the BRI actively and cautiously. Therefore, the BRI helps turn the most disintegrated region into an integrated one.  

Saroj Gautam is a journalist from Nepal. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in international relations at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing. 

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