A Financial Times article on Sunday warned China of a need to improve the efficiency of its State-owned companies while making its projects more beneficial to people in Southeast Asian countries along the Belt and Road, as newly-elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad decided to review a slew of treaties signed with Chinese companies. It raised the question of stakes that Chinese firms must take in entering Southeast Asia under the initiative.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysias prime minister, stands for a photograph in his office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Friday, June 22, 2018. (Photo: VCG)
Five years on, the Belt and Road initiative has gained worldwide attention and interest. Southeast Asia, which sits atop China's diplomacy objectives, expects to get urgently needed opportunities from the initiative that is committed to improving infrastructure and enhancing national and regional connectivity. Better connectivity of countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand will also facilitate growth of the ASEAN community.
However, the presence of Chinese companies in the region is turning out to be a sensitive issue. With their proximity to China, Southeast Asian nations have seen territorial disputes arising from time to time, as shown by historical tensions in the South China Sea. Some countries with a high proportion of ethnic Chinese within their population have a history of anti-Chinese sentiment, discrimination against ethnic Chinese and vigilance about Chinese firms that are holding the countries' economic lifelines. Meanwhile, as infrastructure projects involve a slew of crucial domestic issues such as funding and land acquisition, locals are naturally sensitive to the involvement of foreign companies.
A case in point is the latest anti-China protests that broke out earlier this month in Vietnam. Although the country's newly-adopted Special Zone Act, which allows for the creation of special economic zones, didn't specifically mention China, Vietnamese voluntarily connected it with land-grabbing of Chinese investors. This tendency reflects just how alert people in Southeast Asian countries are to Chinese investment.
These entrenched challenges must be faced squarely and be handled delicately by Chinese companies in pushing forward Belt and Road projects. Enterprises have to exercise patience, recognize local needs of economic development and ensure a high standard of quality in building projects. It's also important for Chinese companies to abide by local laws and regulations, play by the rules and work with local companies rather than arrogantly shutting them out. In promoting the Belt and Road initiative, a well-behaved Chinese company can significantly elevate the image of China and win the necessary trust so that people will understand that the initiative indeed brings them opportunities toward development and bright prospects.
It'll take time for Southeast Asian people's doubts and vigilance about China to die away. Even now, some politicians incite nationalism against China to win votes, which hampers Southeast Asia's development and stops these countries from understanding the unselfish rise of China. . Both Southeast Asia and China have to leave history behind and embrace the present.