Friday, 3 August 2018 — Professor Zha Daojiong spoke at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies (RSPS) Programme seminar on the connectivity between China and Southeast Asia with a focus on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia and how Southeast Asian countries are responding to this initiative.
Professor Zha Daojiong during his presentation (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Professor Zha, who is teaching at Peking University, is currently on a month-long visiting fellowship at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University. He is an author of several books and dozens of research articles including Building a Neighbourly Community: post-Cold War China, Japan, and Southeast Asia (Manchester University Press, reprint edition 2013), co-authored with Professor Hu Weixing.
There is a view that China’s BRI serves primarily to promote Beijing’s strategic and political ambitions. Offering a different perspective, Prof Zha argued that China’s BRI should be seen in the longer context of China’s efforts to connect with the outside world since the 1980s after China embarked on its open door and reform policy. He cited the Lubuge Dam project in Yunnan province that began in 1982 which was led by a consortium of foreign companies with China’s SOEs playing the secondary role of subcontractors. The project provided China with valuable experience in building an infrastructure project.
From left to right: Mr Daljit Singh, Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, and Professor Zha (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Another example cited by Prof Zha was Baoshan Steel, a conglomerate launched in 1977 that was initially built by the Japanese. Yet another was Volkswagen’s entry into China in 1982. Local universities such as Tongji University revised their curriculum to equip students with the necessary skills for employment under the German automobile company. China had benefited from technology and skills transfers from these projects. He therefore saw the BRI as a logical progression from China’s success based on its own development path which was built on foreign experiences and expertise.
However, the BRI has caused some scepticism towards China as harbouring ulterior motives. Caution to the BRI stemmed from the perception that it was a vehicle to assert Chinese hegemony upon this region. Prof Zha however, perceived the BRI as an “invitation towards connectivity”, and was cognizant of the fact that at the moment, it was easy to over or underestimate its significance.
Zha suggested ways for both China and Southeast Asian countries to improve their collaboration on BRI. On China’s part, he stressed that it was important to demonstrate through action that connectivity has to start with foreign gains in China. In this regard, China would host the first International Import Expo in Shanghai in November 2018. On the part of Southeast Asian countries, they ought to be proactive in highlighting what is not permissible to their Chinese counterparts. They should also stress to their Chinese counterparts the importance of co-investing in skill and technology diffusion.
About 100 people from scholarly, diplomatic circles and the general public attended the event. During the question & answer session, Prof Zha answered questions ranging from the South China Sea to the feasibility of the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept.
About 100 people attended the seminar (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)