Edited by Maria A. Carrai, Jean-Christophe Defraigne and Jan Wouters
Chapter 4: Connectivity and gaps: the bridging links and missed links of China’s BRI in Southeast Asia
This chapter offers a small-state perspective on the presence of China’s connectivity-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia, a prioritized region of the rising power’s economic statecraft, especially since President Xi Jinping announced the initiative in late 2013. Viewing “connectivity” and “gaps” as two sides of the same coin, the chapter focuses on the role of the BRI in bridging key gaps in the host countries. Among the key findings is that the effects of China’s BRI push – taking place alongside the pulls of several host countries – have been mixed: bridging links are being developed, but missed links persist. Specifically, while the growing BRI presence is showing early signs of narrowing the physical and developmental gaps in several Southeast Asian countries, the process has also highlighted the enduring – and in some cases deepening – perceptual and political gaps between China and host countries. This chapter argues that the persistent gaps and missed links are a product of power asymmetries, bilateral complexities, and divergent domestic political imperatives across the countries. Significantly, while the gaps have constrained and challenged China’s BRI agenda, they have also motivated Beijing to devote more capital, diplomatic resources, and political will to the cross-border negotiation treadmills with the smaller countries, especially as competing powers enter the Asian connectivity game one after another. Further strengthening the bridging links and addressing the missed links is central to the prospects of the BRI in shaping global governance in the twenty-first century.
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