China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a good project, but it needs to be managed well by the countries that sign up to it, said Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
He said China has claimed that the South China Sea belonged to it.
“But that is all right as it can make a claim. We can all make claims, but the most important thing is not to do anything damaging. Then it is all right,” he said during an exclusive interview with The Post on Tuesday.
The BRI is a new “Silk Road” concept connecting China with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa, with the “belt” referring to overland trade routes throughout Central Asia.
The “road” alludes to sea lanes connecting Southeast Asia with Africa and Europe.
The BRI was first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and involves a $1 trillion investment.
Within the BRI framework, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is known as the first port of call in China’s massive infrastructure programme.
The area, previously known as Kampong Som before it was renamed in honour of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, has benefited from $4.2 billion in Chinese investment for power plants and offshore oil operations.
Mahathir said his concern is that the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca are two seaways which needed to be free for all maritime traffic as they are important for trade and communication.
“So far China has not disturbed the passage of ships through these seaways. Even warships are going through them, so it is all right. The BRI is a good thing in the sense that it will ensure the two seaways will be kept open.
“It is in China’s interests to keep these seaways open because China needs to trade with other countries and it needs to have free passage for all ships and goods to travel along them to different parts of the world,” he said.
Supporters have hailed the BRI as bold plan to meet the needs of emerging markets for infrastructure investment, which Beijing stresses is a way to boost regional cooperation and connectivity.
However, critics have warned that the initiative lacks sustainability in some of its port and railway networks.
In December 2017, Sri Lanka was forced to lease the port of Hambantota and an adjacent 6,000ha to Beijing for 99 years after Colombo failed to repay the loans used in its construction.
The Maldives, Pakistan and Malaysia have also renegotiated some of their China-backed projects due to the high cost-to-debt ratios.
While credit rating agency Moody’s has raised a lack of transparency surrounding many BRI projects and the high interest rates attached to some of them, Xi moved to allay such fears.
In September 2018, he told more than 50 African leaders visiting Beijing that a $60 billion investment package did not “come with any political conditions attached”.
So far, more than 68 countries are believed to be involved in the BRI, accounting for 40 per cent of global GDP and 65 per cent of the world’s population, by some estimates.