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Wednesday, September 13, 2017, 16:36
‘Freedom corridor’ paves way for rift
By Cai Hong
Wednesday, September 13, 2017, 16:36 By Cai Hong

Japan, India plan to counter Belt and Road Initiative when the region would benefit more from countries combining forces

Japan’s foreign ministry is requesting a bigger budget for official development assistance, or ODA, for fiscal 2018. In recent years Japan has increased its ODA to countries in the regions that are on the blueprint of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

Japan has done it alone or joined hands with India to push back China’s influence. Both are staying away from the China-led initiative.

President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road plan in 2013. Spanning 60-plus countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa, it is believed to potentially involve an area covering 55 percent of the world’s gross national product, 70 percent of the global population and 75 percent of known energy reserves.

The Belt refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, envisioned as three routes connecting China to Europe (via Central Asia), the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean (through West Asia) and the Indian Ocean (via South Asia). 

The Road, meanwhile, refers to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is planned to create connections among regional waterways through the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

On June 20, China came up with a vision document for enhancing maritime cooperation along the Belt and Road’s seagoing routes. The proposals envisage three ocean-based passages.

The China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea “blue economic passage” will run westward via the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, and link with the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, and connect with the China-Pakistan and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridors.

The blue economic passage of China-Oceania-South Pacific will travel southward via the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean. Finally, a future blue economic passage will move to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.

Japan and India have elevated their ties to a “special strategic and global partnership” since 2014. Japan has seeded a variety of projects in northeast India in such sectors as highways, power, water, sewage and natural resource management. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assigned Japan a pivotal role in his vision of investing heavily to modernize the northeast so that it becomes a “gateway for Southeast Asia” and a stepping stone to India’s ambitious Act East foreign policy.

A Japanese-supported national highway system traversing India’s northeastern states would act as a catalyst to India’s delayed Kaladan multi-modal transport corridor for enhancing trade ties with Myanmar.

During Modi’s trip to Tokyo in November 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a joint project on an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, also called the “freedom corridor”. The two countries — Asia’s second and third largest economies — are aiming to expand their bilateral relationship to areas stretching from Asia Pacific to Africa.

Japan and India are attempting to develop the Mekong-India Economic Corridor so as to connect the Kenya-Tanzania-Mozambique growth zone through the ports of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kochi.

In eastern Sri Lanka, the two countries are expected to jointly expand strategically located Trincomalee port. They are also likely to join hands to develop Myanmar’s Dawei port along the border with Thailand. 

Meanwhile, Japan is expected to join the Indian foray into the expansion of the strategically important Chabahar port in southeastern Iran and the adjoining special economic zone.

The Chabahar project is seen as a counterweight to China’s support for building Gwadar port, barely 140 km away in Pakistan, and would also help connect Japan with Central Asia, a landlocked region with rich resources, newly discovered economic potential and a growing population. This is a place where Japan has competed with China.

Abe visited five Central Asian countries — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — in 2015, inking deals on energy, agriculture and infrastructure works.

Africa has become a favored destination for investment in recent decades. The continent is blessed with abundant natural resources and is seen as a potentially huge market. Its combined population is projected to top 2 billion by 2040 from 1.2 billion now.

Japan and India held a separate session with stakeholders from Africa on the sidelines of the African Development Bank meeting in Ahmedabad, India, on May 24 to discuss joint projects on capacity-building and infrastructure in Africa.

Japan pours billions in ODA into Africa for the continent’s infrastructure facilities.

At a ministerial meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in Mozambique on Aug 24-25, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told representatives from 50 countries in the continent that Japan intended to conclude new bilateral investment treaties with 13 countries including Algeria and Morocco.

Bilateral investment agreements will help Japanese enterprises to do business in the continent by — as The Yomiuri Shimbun put it — setting those companies on an equal footing with local firms.

In Mozambique, a region-wide development in the Nacala Corridor is under way with Japan’s cooperation. In tandem with the development of Nacala port, which faces the Indian Ocean, a leading Japanese trading house has launched coal mining, railway and harbor projects.

The Yomiuri Shimbun said it is important for Japan’s investment to be linked to the mid- and long-term structural reform of African economies.

The Japanese government will establish a representative office at the headquarters of the African Union in Ethiopia within the current fiscal year, which ends next March. 

It is not difficult to deduce that the Belt and Road Initiative and the “freedom corridor” are covering similar ground and for the same purposes.

Now that the “freedom corridor” is taking shape just months after China hosted the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May, suspicions are raised that Japan and India are more interested in using their project to counter the influence of their regional rival, according to African Business magazine.

The investment and technologies from China, Japan and India will surely improve the well-being of the vast areas their initiatives cover. But the Japan-India strategy based on counterbalance will widen the rift between the two countries and China.

A contest for spheres of influence will prove draining. The three countries should combine forces for the development of the region and beyond.

The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.

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