Pitfalls of competitive connectivity in Asia

Author: Jürgen Rüland, University of Freiburg Geopolitical competition between the United States and China is most tangible in Asia. In 2011, Washington responded to China’s growing influence in the region with its ‘Pivot to Asia’. Two years later, Beijing countered with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a US$1 trillion infrastructure development program connecting […]

Pitfalls of competitive connectivity in Asia

Author: Jürgen Rüland, University of Freiburg

Geopolitical competition between the United States and China is most tangible in Asia. In 2011, Washington responded to China’s growing influence in the region with its ‘Pivot to Asia’. Two years later, Beijing countered with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a US$1 trillion infrastructure development program connecting Asia with Europe via land, sea and the polar route. Although promoted as a way to improve regional integration and economic growth, the BRI is widely viewed as China’s grand strategy to maximise its global clout.

The BRI triggered competing infrastructure schemes. In 2015, Japan launched its ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and in 2016, ASEAN amended its Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. Then in 2018, the United States passed the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act and the European Union released its EU–Asia Connectivity scheme.

Connectivity has become the buzzword for poor countries in the process of jump-starting industrialisation and for more advanced economies trying to avoid the middle-income trap. Most Asian countries want a share of the infrastructure cake. Infrastructure is a prerequisite for economic growth, but there are big questions about its sustainability.

As donors compete for projects with the strategic objective of strengthening their influence in recipient countries, projects must be affordable and implemented quickly. China seeks to increase its attractiveness as a partner by promising speedy planning and implementation without the intrusive conditionalities of multilateral donors like the World Bank and most Western donors. This prompted even Japan — a member of the OECD Development Assistance Committee and the Asian Development Bank — to announce faster project execution. Other donors like India, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia are, like China, more interested in effective project completion than in social and environmental sustainability.

Many infrastructure projects ignore best practices. Dam projects, special economic zones, railways, roads and power plants can displace those living on or near project sites. Many are resettled with little, no or markedly delayed compensation. Subsistence farmers, fishermen and indigenous people lose their livelihood and face permanent poverty. Stakeholder consultation is absent and jobs remain an empty promise. Chinese contractors often bring their own workforce, while in other cases the bulk of jobs go to internal migrants.

Special industrial zones — celebrated as providing mass employment — rarely live up to this promise as they have long gestation periods of up to 10 years before becoming fully operational. The jobs they provide offer low pay and poor working conditions.

On the environmental front, the dams along the Mekong, the Salween and their tributaries negatively impact sedimentation, fish migration and biodiversity. They cause soil erosion and the salinisation of the Mekong Delta. This severely endangers inland fisheries and agriculture in Southeast Asia’s rice bowl, which depends on sediment flow.

While China and Japan seek to produce clean energy at home, they still finance and export coal-fired power plants to many parts of Asia. Although they cease to export subcritical low-efficiency coal technology and now build ‘supercritical’ and ‘ultra-supercritical’ plants, the great number of plants planned or under construction will markedly increase carbon dioxide emissions. Coal-fired power plants also emit other pollutants like toxic gases, coal ash and acid rain, causing serious health problems for people living near the sites.

Apart from the unbridled competition among provider countries, another reason for the low social and environmental standards of many infrastructure projects is the developmental state model that catapulted Asia’s economic frontrunners to advanced economies within a short time. Developing countries seek to kick-start rapid industrialisation and economic growth with state regulation of markets, advancements in productivity, close interaction between state and business elites, a strong state that tightly controls civil society and a belief in technocratic rationality. Commitments to equality, social welfare and environmental sustainability are largely absent.

As China and Japan seek to persuade aid recipients to follow their developmental state model, many infrastructure projects reflect traits of the developmental state in a path-dependent way. They prioritise rapid economic growth and industrialisation over social and environmental concerns. For the developmental state, aggregate gains count while individual suffering caused by rapid modernisation takes a backseat. Contractors are often state-owned enterprises or companies closely linked to the state. Civil society protest against the projects is muzzled by local authorities and problems are believed to be solvable by advanced technology.

This is not an argument against infrastructure modernisation. It is an appeal for socially and environmentally sustainable infrastructure. The infrastructure programs championed by Western donors in the 1960s and 1970s and the great number of ‘white elephants’ they produced, stimulated learning the hard way. Meanwhile, international organisations such as the International Commission on Large Dams, the United Nations, the World Bank and the OECD have set standards for sustainable infrastructure.

There is no need to repeat the mistakes of the past. As geopolitical competition in Asia intensifies, embracing best practices can help the region’s infrastructure development to evade a race to the bottom in environmental policy and prevent the production of a large cohort of losers as a result of modernisation. The recent Cambodian decision to put on hold plans for two mainstream Mekong dams indicates re-thinking in the right direction.

Jürgen Rüland is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg.

This article is drawn from the author’s recent publication ‘’ in the Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Source : East Asia Forum More   

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China Anti-Crime Campaign in Tibet Used to Punish Critics, Dalai Lama Supporters: HRW

'It’s just an excuse to crack down on Tibetans,' says Wangden Kyap of Tibet Watch.

China Anti-Crime Campaign in Tibet Used to Punish Critics, Dalai Lama Supporters:  HRW

A campaign launched two years ago by Chinese authorities in Tibet to combat crime is also targeting political dissidents, critics of corruption, and activists promoting use of the Tibetan language, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Friday.

Also drawing attention from the police are Tibetan supporters of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who is viewed by Beijing as a dangerous separatist intent on splitting the formerly independent Himalayan country away from Chinese rule, HRW said.

Launched in January 2018, China’s drive against so-called “underworld forces” was officially aimed at combating drug dealing, gambling, and other gang-related crimes, HRW said in its report, “China: Tibet Anti-Crime Campaign Silences Dissent.”

Since then, though, courts in Tibetan areas of China have used “gang crime” charges “to sentence at least 51 Tibetans up to 9 years in prison for peacefully petitioning or protesting  issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and official corruption,” HRW said.

Recent reports in Chinese state media meanwhile reveal that local authorities have now been ordered to use the anti-crime drive to crush support for greater freedom in Tibet, especially if critics of Chinese government policy in Tibet “can be seen as a group, as spokespeople, or as supporting the Dalai Lama,” HRW said.

A directive issued by the Tibet Autonomous Region’s (TAR) Public Security Bureau also now bans Tibetan religious figures or other “locally respected figures” from mediating local disputes, an activity not previously considered by authorities to be illegal, HRW said.

Also targeted by the campaign are attempts by Tibetan activists to protect Tibet’s environment from damage caused by Chinese mining or other infrastructure projects, efforts described by officials as an  “illegal occupation [by the protesters] of land.”

China’s anti-crime campaign in Tibet “is just another way to prevent Tibetans from exercising their internationally guaranteed rights,” HRW’s China Director Sophie Richardson told RFA’s Tibetan Service this week.

“The Chinese government has long sought to criminalize any criticism raised [against it], particularly by Tibetans,” Richardson said.

A coordinated, global response to Beijing is now needed to change the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s behavior toward Tibetans, Uyghurs, and human rights defenders in China, Richardson said, adding that “China is now also flexing its muscles within the UN system in ways that threaten UN human rights mechanisms.”

“Therefore, governments around the world need to [launch] a coordinated campaign now to make pushback a priority,” Richardson said.

“This campaign goes beyond the CCP’s regular guidelines and gives additional authority to Chinese local officials, police, and [political] leaders to detain and harass Tibetans accused of suspicious activity,” added Wangden Kyap, a senior researcher at London-based Tibet Watch. 

'It's just an excuse to crack down'

“It’s just an excuse to crack down on Tibetans,” Kyap said, adding that the campaign has traumatized Tibetan communities and sown mistrust among Tibetans afraid of being reported by informers to the Chinese authorities.

Under China’s anti-crime campaign, restrictions on religious freedoms have also “increasingly escalated, especially under the leadership of China’s president Xi Jinping,” added Tenzin Tsetan, a research fellow at the Dharamsala, India-based Tibet Policy Institute.

“This can be viewed as a systematic Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism, which along with the Dalai Lama is perceived by China’s Communist Party as a potential threat to its authority,” Tsetan said. “Therefore, the CCP has put this campaign into effect.”

Examples previously reported by RFA point to abuses carried out by authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas of China under the name of fighting crime.

In December 2019, Anya Sengdra—a resident of Gade (in Chinese, Gande) county in Qinghai’s Golog (Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was sentenced to a seven-year prison term on a charge of disturbing social order after he complained online about corrupt officials, illegal mining, and the hunting of protected wildlife.

“[His] arrest and conviction fits a wider pattern of harassment of Tibetan activists and environmental defenders, which has seen hundreds of arrests,” London-based Free Tibet said, adding that roundups by Chinese police are now being conducted as part of a crackdown on so-called “criminal gangs.”

Development projects in Tibetan areas have led to frequent standoffs with Tibetans who accuse Chinese firms and local officials of pilfering money, improperly seizing land, and disrupting the lives of local people.

Many result in violent suppression, the detention of protest organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government’s wishes.

Reported by RFA's Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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