Bypass Malacca Strait–China’s BRI Strategic Connections to the West


Stratfor’s article “Casting an Eye on the Belt and Road Initiative” on August 28 describes China’s BRI as China’s worldwide ambitious initiative. If China were able to satisfy the needs for construction of infrastructures all over the world, it would certainly be an ambitious initiative to make China world leader. However, China is not rich enough to do so; therefore, it invites other countries to join it in the construction.

As the infrastructures may facilitate other countries’ investment and expansion of market in receiving countries, Japan and EU are interested but still have doubt whether joining China will help China become a world hegemon. Therefore, most of them would rather join the US to demonize China by description of China’s efforts as setting up “debt traps” to hurt receiving countries.

Stratfor’s article however, points out China’s efforts to avoid its BRI projects from becoming debt traps through renegotiation to reduce the debt burdens on receiving countries. However, it fails to see the strategic importance of BRI for China.

First, bypass the Malacca Strait. BRI first of all is aimed at China’s connections to its markets and sources of resources to its West. The old Silk Road is not so important as it’s on land while most trade now is carried out by shipping, which is much less expansive and has much greater volume.

Through development of infrastructures of roads, railways and pipelines, the freight costs have reduced but are still much higher than marine shipping. The freight volume is limited. China has developed rail links with Europe through Central Asia and Russia and would keep such links even if the rail freight is not cost effective enough as they may provide alternatives if marine shipping is cut off by powerful US navy.

Even if China has a relatively strong navy to protect its shipping through the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait will be a bottleneck difficult to pass if it is blocked by US military stationed in Singapore.

That is why Hambantota Port is so important. If China can bypass the strait, the port will become the major transport hub as important as Singapore for China’s shipping to its west now.

That is why China is building a railway through Laos to Thailand while Thailand is building a railway linking the railway in Laos to Malaysia. Malaysia has to build its East Coast Rail Link to its port on its western coast. Such a pan-Asia railway will enable not only China but also quite a few Indochinese countries to bypass the Malacca Strait.

The article mentioned the reduction of cost by China for the construction of the East Coast Rail Link though I have mentioned that as China is building a port at Kyaukpyu, Myanmar and the establishment of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor will make the construction of a railway linking Kyaukpyu and China possible. That will give China a much better shortcut to the Indian Ocean without going through the Malacca.

A pipeline from Pyaukpyu to China has already been built and in operation for more than 3 years as a shortcut for shipping of oil to China.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on Stratfor’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/casting-eye-belt-and-road-initiative-china-infrastructure.