As China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) marches west through Southern Asia, diplomatic envoys criss-cross the Indo-pacific like honeybees; collecting assurances, and pollinating relationships. Australia, the US, India & Japan — the ‘Quad’ — are buzzing with concern about China’s increasing economic and military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Since 2017, each Quad member has introduced a policy or strategy, promoting economic freedom, security, a rules based order and freedom of navigation in the region. They’re concerned partly due to China’s track record of irreverence to international law in the South China Sea, and BRI projects heaping developing countries with unmanageable debts; making them increasingly dependent and vulnerable to Chinese coercion.
Malaysia recently scrapped three Chinese BRI infrastructure projects worth US$23 billion (AU$30 billion). And Sri Lanka granted China a 99-year lease on a local port in exchange for the cancelation of a $US1 billion debt.
Both states are situated on key shipping trade routes, and there are fears the port could be used for military purposes in the future. The Quad members have sought to temper China’s regional hegemony; with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently travelling to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, announcing $US300 million for regional security assistance.
They’re also vying for influence in Sri Lanka, where last month Japan’s foreign minister delivered two coast-guard patrol aircraft, a week after the US gave US$39 million for naval development — while India and China have been competing for road and housing projects in the Island’s north.
Pakistan, another state with crippling debts to China, is a crucial link in the BRI chain, providing a direct trade corridor between China and Arabian Sea ports. Last week, Pakistan received both US and Chinese envoys within days of each other.
In July, the US announced its answer to the BRI; the ‘Indo-Pacific Investment Plan’, in partnership with Japan and Australia, to offer responsible infrastructure lending and encourage private investment in the region.
They could disrupt the BRI’s continuity by attempting to win over key states, such as Pakistan, through infrastructure lending. However, the trio are unlikely to make moves that require huge funding and risk compromising important diplomatic and trade ties with China.
After all, honey bees can sting, but they pay with their lives.
Hugh Morrison is a Bachelor of Journalism student majoring in international relations, and an intern at the Centre for Independent Studies.