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The project was on the agenda for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s talks with US President Donald Trump this week. File photo: AP 

Australia, US, India and Japan in talks to establish ‘alternative’ to China’s Belt and Road (just don’t call it a rival)

The Belt and Road plan is a vehicle for China to take a greater role on the international stage by funding and building global transport and trade links in more than 60 countries

In a bid to counter Beijing’s growing influence, Australia, the US, India and Japan are said to be talking about establishing a joint regional infrastructure scheme as an alternative to China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

An unnamed senior US official was quoted in the Australian Financial Review on Monday as saying the plan involving the four allies was “nascent” and “won’t be ripe enough to be announced” during Australian Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit to the United States later this week.

However, the official said the project will be on the agenda for Turnbull’s talks with US President Donald Trump and was being seriously discussed. 

The source said the preferred terminology was to call the plan an “alternative” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, rather than a “rival”.

“No one is saying China should not build infrastructure,” the official was quoted as saying. “China might build a port which, on its own is not economically viable. We could make it economically viable by building a road or rail line linking that port.”

Representatives for Turnbull, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Steven Ciobo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Japan, meanwhile, plans to use its official development help (ODA) to promote a broader “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” including “high-quality infrastructure”, according to a summary draft of its 2017 white paper on ODA. The Indo-Pacific strategy has been endorsed by Washington and is also seen as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Tao Wenzhao, an international relations expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it’s unclear whether the countries have enough money to invest in regional infrastructure, or even whether Washington is willing to, since Trump appears more eager in seeking returns from the region.

“We cannot say that the four nations will fail, but how far their initiative will go remains to be seen,” Tao said. “China will not oppose any nations from launching infrastructure projects in the region. We have not said only China can do it and other nations cannot. The Belt and Road Initiative is open.”

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of Beijing, agreed that the four nations are limited in strength.

“It is questionable if they are able to come up with a joint project that can compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative in terms of global influence,” he said. However, he warned that the nations will continue to exert pressure on China on issues such as South China Sea disputes.

First mentioned during a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping to university students in Kazakhstan in 2013, China’s Belt and Road plan is a vehicle for the Asian country to take a greater role on the international stage by funding and building global transport and trade links in more than 60 countries.

Xi has heavily promoted the initiative, inviting world leaders to Beijing last May for an inaugural summit at which he pledged US$124 billion in funding for the plan, and enshrining it into the ruling Communist Party’s constitution in October.

Local Chinese governments as well as state and private firms have rushed to offer support by investing overseas and making loans.

In January, Beijing outlined its ambitions to extend the initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming, forming a “Polar Silk Road”.

The United States, Japan, India and Australia have recently revived four-way talks to deepen security cooperation and coordinate alternatives for regional infrastructure financing to that offered by China.

The so-called Quad to discuss and cooperate on security first met as an initiative a decade ago – much to the annoyance of China, which saw it as an attempt by regional democracies to contain its advances. The quartet held talks in Manila on the sidelines of the November Asean and East Asia Summits.

Additional reporting by Nectar Gan

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Belt and Road alternative touted