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For Asian firms wanting to get in on the action, China’s belt and road is not only about trade and infrastructure

Why China’s belt and road is not only about trade and infrastructure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 9:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 10:47am

[Brought to you by SCMP Events and Conferences]

As China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” gathers momentum, business leaders in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia will continue to face a series of choices.

The most fundamental decision will be whether to get involved as principals, partners, advisers or investors in the multitude of diverse opportunities expected to materialise from the global trade and infrastructure plan in the coming years.

Doubts invariably exist about the scale and ambition of a China-led scheme that seeks to reshape trade routes, infrastructure development and economic ties in Asia and beyond. But the way things are going, with countries and companies increasingly eager to buy into the concept and participate in related projects, a greater risk may be to hesitate and miss out on the chance of a lifetime.

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At first glance, the initiative can seem Sino-centric and just another way to boost China’s exports and offshore investment prospects. But as senior officials have pointed out, the guiding philosophy is not simply to push for profits or search for new markets.

For the business community, those aspects cannot be ignored. But at its core, China’s global trade plan is also altruistic about improving economic connectivity across Asia, creating new jobs and viable opportunities that deliver long-term benefits.

The challenge, therefore, is for any hopeful participant to identify how and where they can best fit in.

There are all kinds of ways that banks, local companies and professional bodies can look to export their expertise. Whether that be financing or advising on any one of the projects taking shape in the many nations that now fall under the belt and road umbrella.

That, indeed, emerged as one of the key themes at the recent Belt and Road Summit in Hong Kong – the third of its kind. Speakers from different sectors made no secret of the types of problems that can be encountered when trying to gain a foothold and establish productive working relationships in new, unfamiliar territory.

In some places, these can range from bureaucratic tangles and unclear regulations to opaque tax codes and outright corruption. It is also important to recognise the resistance and sensitivities that can arise when bringing in new ideas, practices or technologies that may not be universally welcomed.     

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However, what also shone through at last month’s summit was the gamut of possibilities for those itching to get involved. Perhaps unavoidably, most analysis tends to focus on the potential for investment in large-scale capital projects – airports, roads, railways, power systems, telecom networks, factories and logistics hubs.

But with the Belt and Road Initiative providing both reason and impetus, it is now also clear that the door is open for the likes of law firms, architects, management consultants and marketing specialists – they just need to give a little push.

But the vast swathes of new contracts and linkages arising from China’s belt and road is piquing interests and paying dividends well beyond the sphere of business.

In higher education, it has already led to a number of farsighted academic exchange programmes sure to provide benefits in the years ahead. And further cultural exchanges are planned, involving everything from performing arts to literature and cinema, as a way of building awareness, breaking down barriers and strengthening ties at all levels.

The essential message for Hong Kong and for countries across Southeast Asia following the recent summit, therefore, is that the Belt and Road Initiative may primarily be about trade and investment, but it does not stop there.

[This article has been expressly commissioned for SCMP events and conferences. This is not an SCMP editorial product.]