Japan’s critical endorsement of the Belt Road speaks volumes
In a speech delivered recently in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of his willingness to co-operate on projects, but added that procurement should be transparent, fair, and economically viable. To Beijing that probably sounded more like a critique of the Belt Road rather than a call for international co-operation.
14 Jun 2017 | Michael Marray

The tensions between China and Japan over China's projection of influence via the Belt & Road initiative are never far from the surface. In a speech delivered in Tokyo on June 5, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke of his willingness to co-operate on projects, but added that procurement should be transparent and fair, and that they must be economically viable.

To Beijing that probably sounded more like a critique of the Belt Road rather than a call for international co-operation, even if Abe did add a few words about the Belt Road having the potential to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the region and the world.

One project where the two countries are currently facing off is the planned 350 kilometre high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. China Railway Group (commonly known as CREC) is hoping to win the contract as a showcase international project for its bullet trains. The Japanese government has been lobbying hard in favour of Japan Rail, and last year Japan Rail even set up a Shinkansen simulator in a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur as part of its publicity drive. South Korea is also in the frame with its KTX system operated by Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail).

Japan's high-speed trains, the shinkansen.

On July 5 Malaysia’s MyHSR Corporation and Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) will hold an industry briefing in Singapore, where they will outline the parameters of the upcoming tender.

On February 16 2017, LTA and MyHSR awarded the high-speed rail joint development partner contract to a consortium comprising WSP Engineering Malaysia, Mott MacDonald Malaysia, and Ernst & Young Advisory Services. They will provide project management support, technical advice on systems and operations, develop safety standards and help prepare tender documents for the joint project team of LTA and MyHSR.

The speech by Shinzo Abe was delivered at the banquet of the 23rd International Conference on The Future of Asia, held in Tokyo on June 5. It was titled “Asia's Dream: Linking the Pacific and Eurasia”.

Abe noted that this year a landmark change occurred on the map of the Eurasian continent, when for the first time the Chinese city of Yiwu and the United Kingdom were connected by a freight train, which crosses under the English Channel.

“The One Belt, One Road initiative holds the potential to connect East and West as well as the diverse regions found in between,” he told his audience.

“Regarding infrastructure, there is a frame of thinking that is widely shared across the international community,” Abe said. “First of all, it is critical for infrastructure to be open to use by all, and to be developed through procurement that is transparent and fair. I furthermore consider it essential for projects to be economically viable and to be financed by debt that can be repaid, and not to harm the soundness of the debtor nation's finances. I would expect that the One Belt, One Road initiative will fully incorporate such a common frame of thinking, and come into harmony with the free and fair Trans-Pacific economic zone, and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the region and the world. Japan is ready to extend co-operation from this perspective.”

In the very next part of his speech, Abe talked about Japanese high-speed trains, and how Japan is promoting its “High Quality Infrastructure Partnership”.

“We Japanese are very particular about some aspects of infrastructure,” he said. “It must be safe and it must be environmentally friendly. The diligent and sincere people who work on the ground are solving problems and making sure these qualities are not compromised, day in and day out.”

He then quoted Indian Prime Minister Modi, the region's biggest opponent of the Belt Road, as saying that “bringing in a Japanese bullet train – the Shinkansen – will not just realize high-speed rail but serve as a major catalyst for the modernization of India's rail system overall.”

Modi was well aware that Japan's co-operation does not stop until technologies and skills, including those for maintenance, take root in the area where the infrastructure is being developed, Abe added.

AIIB membership
Against this background of suspicion over the Belt & Road, one important question that Japan is currently facing is whether to sign up as a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Japan is the most influential member of the Asian Development Bank, and Japan and the United States are the only G7 countries that have, so far, not signed up to the AIIB. The new Trump administration in Washington has been weighing up whether to join the AIIB, whose establishment was opposed by the Obama administration. If the US does decide to join, the pressure on Japan to get on board will increase. Abe has already said that he remains open to the idea of AIIB membership, but has suggested that environmental and other issues must first be looked at.

Abe was not present at the Belt & Road summit held in Beijing in May. But Japan did nonetheless send a high-level representative in the form of Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party.

 

Shinzo Abe photo credit: drop of light/shutterstock.com

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