China’s Premier Li Keqiang (centre) poses for a group photo at the 22nd Asean-China Summit in Bangkok last November. Photo: AFP
Eye on Asia
by Melinda Martinus
Eye on Asia
by Melinda Martinus

China can boost Asean’s smart-city dreams but, first, it needs to earn some trust in Southeast Asia

  • China has a lot to offer the ambitious Asean Smart City Network project and has pledged to share its experience and technology
  • But the rise of anti-China sentiment in Asean over South China Sea tensions and unpopular Mekong dam projects may hinder cooperation
China is the latest nation to pledge support for the Asean Smart City Network, which aims to address the Southeast Asian bloc’s urbanisation challenges through digital technology and innovation, an ambitious plan supported also by the United States, Australia and South Korea.
The network was launched in 2018 with 26 cities under pilot programmes, including Bandar Seri Begawan, Battambang, Bangkok, Cebu City, Da Nang, Jakarta, Hanoi, Kota Kinabalu, Luang Prabang, Phuket, Singapore and Yangon.
Following the Asean-China joint statement on cooperation last November, Chinese tech giant Huawei opened an artificial intelligence centre in Singapore, the island-state’s first 5G-enabled AI lab. The US$10 million centre plans to train thousands of developers to promote AI technologies for social and economic benefit.
So, what expertise can China share? Firstly, both China and Asean have experience with rapid urbanisation, with China’s urbanisation rate at 60 per cent at end-2018 and Asean’s at around 50 per cent today. The government-funded Centre for Liveable Cities in Singapore points out that Asean’s fastest-growing cities are its medium-sized ones, with population sizes ranging from 200,000 to 2 million, such as Vientiane, Davao, Denpasar, Makassar, Johor Bahru and Da Nang. These cities are urbanising at an unprecedented rate of more than 6 per cent annually, a rate that only Chinese cities come close to.
China brings with it the experience of crafting a rigorous urban master plan to create more than 250 low-carbon eco-cities with business opportunities and liveability. Likewise, Asean is working to incorporate environmental protection in urban development within the framework of its sustainable urbanisation strategy.
Secondly, China has built more economic centres than any other nation, transforming previous unknowns such as Hefei, Chengdu, Dalian, Chongqing and Wuhan into vital economic generators. Chengdu , for instance, grew its gross domestic product from US$137 billion in 2012 to US$206 billion in 2017, up by half in just five years. And it plans to add US$75 million in GDP by 2022 by focusing on six aspects of its new economy: digital, smart, green, creative, traffic and shared.

For China, Asean is far more important than a mere ‘talking shop’

Further, China successfully maintains smart urban agglomeration across the country. The three most significant clusters – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta – constitute around 40 per cent of China’s GDP. These agglomerations are supported by extensive corridors of smart infrastructure and labour supply, making them attractive to investment.

This can be an exemplary prototype for Asean in its plans to deepen economic integration, including by enhancing regional infrastructure to spur economic growth.

However, China, for its impressive achievements and willingness to share its expertise in smart urbanisation, may face challenges as anti-China sentiment in Asean grows.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea has escalated tensions between China and the Asean members of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Since a Chinese oil rig was deployed in the disputed region in 2014, Vietnam has seen anti-China protests and boycotts of Chinese products, factories and real estate projects.
Also, China, as a champion of zero carbon, leads clean energy projects in Asean but these can have unintended consequences. For example, China invests in about half of the hydropower projects in Laos but the Mekong river dams are often criticised as environmentally disastrous, disrupting fish migration patterns and blocking water flows needed to nourish farmland in the delta states of Cambodia and Vietnam.
China’s ambitious master plan to enhance regional connectivity through its US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative is still perceived with scepticism and met with warnings of debt trap.
For now, China appears to be a revisionist power threatening Asean stability. Its commitment to support Asean’s smart city initiative may be a step towards closing the trust gap and fixing China’s marred soft diplomacy. With enough determination, such a collaboration could lead to more fruitful partnerships.

Melinda Martinus is a lead researcher in sociocultural affairs at the Asean Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: To boost Asean plan, China must build trust