As an ambitious effort to enhance regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was unveiled by Xi Jinping in September 2013. Involving 70 countries which account collectively for over 4.4 billion or 65 percent of global population (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2018), 30 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 75 percent of known energy reserves (World Bank, 2018)c, China’s BRI aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links. In fact, BRI countries’ contribution to global exports has nearly doubled in the last 2 decades, magnifying the tremendous growth of trade in this region and its potential for exponential growth as a result of the BRI, as seen in Figure 1.
Consisting primarily of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the New Maritime Silk Road, the BRI is set to link China to central and South Asia, South East Asia, the Gulf countries and onward to Europe; taking advantage of international transport routes as well as core cities and key ports. In fact, six other economic corridors have been identified namely the New Eurasia Land Bridge, China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central Asia-West Asia, China-Indochina Peninsula, China-Pakistan, and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar as seen in Figure 2.
Specifically referring to the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC) of which Malaysia is part of, it’s goal is to better connect cities in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia with a network of railways and highways to facilitate the flow of people, goods, capital and information. This is in line with the five major goals of the Belt and Road Initiative which are policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds.
In terms of ‘facilities connectivity’, the BRI involves prioritizing the removal of barriers in the missing sections and bottleneck areas of core international transportation passages, advancing the construction of port infrastructure facilities, and clearing land-water intermodal transport passages. The connectivity of infrastructure facilities, including railways, highways, air routes, telecommunications, oil and natural gas pipelines and ports, will also be promoted (Hong Kong Trade Development Council Research, 2018).
On the other hand, in terms of ‘unimpeded trade’, steps will be taken to resolve investment and trade facilitation issues, reduce investment and trade barriers, lower trade and investment costs, as well as to promote regional economic integration. Efforts will also be made to broaden the scope of trade, propel trade development through investment, and strengthen co-operation in the industry chain with all related countries.
These two major goals of facilities connectivity and unimpeded trade certainly will go a long way in enhancing trade facilitation across BRI regions as a result of improving transport networks. However, there are diverse opinions from experts on the impact of the BRI on global trade. For instance, as trade between countries involved accounts for more than a quarter of world trade, ING International Trade Analysis Senior Economist Joanna Konings (2018) reported that a halving in trade costs between countries could increase trade by 12 percent; stating that the benefits will depend on where the trade costs falls. The World Trade Organization (WTO) on the other hand calculated their improvements in trade facilitation could reduce BRI countries’ trade costs by between 12% and 23% (WTO, 2018). Meanwhile, Villafuerte, Corong and Zhuang (2016) estimated that the total exports of the countries involved could increase by about USD5 billion to USD135 billion. Villafuerte, Corong and Zhuang (2016) estimated that the total exports of the countries involved could increase by about USD5 billion to USD135 billion. However no research has been carried out specifically on BRI’s impact on Malaysia’s export of rubber products highlighting the literature gap which needs to be filled.
It is also important to note that several BRI projects are currently under construction and are expected to be completed in the coming 5 years. Furthermore, the BRI is open-ended which imply that new projects are likely to be initiated in that time. Hence, any significant fall in trade costs will most likely take at least 5 years or more likely 10 years or possibly longer.
As aptly stated by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “The Belt and Road initiative is a pioneering, international framework based on an “open platform concept” which does not need a leader but a curator who acts as a catalyst and coordinator for ensuring win-win outcomes. Indeed, many world leaders have expressed their support for pursuing win-win outcomes for both China and the other participating countries. The question now is how do we pursue a win-win outcome by maximize the opportunities and mitigate the risks, to further expand Malaysia’s role as the world’s leading supplier of medical gloves, foley catheters, condoms and latex threads.
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