Even as the geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific has seen the vagaries of the Sino-US rivalry in the recent past, the launch of the Executive Consultation Group for reviving the Blue Dot Network (BDN) took place in Paris on 7 June 2021. This group will work under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to look at the potential to offer quality infrastructure investments in the Indo-Pacific region. The BDN as it has come to be known, particularly as an alternative to the BRI, is increasingly pitting countries promoting the liberal order against the Chinese authoritarian order. The BDN looks at promoting investment in high-level infrastructure that is based on maintaining international standards, and seeks to enhance the governance towards the furthering of best practices while promoting open markets as the option to link these projects together. This brings the focus more on the geo-economics of the region, as the Indo-Pacific is emerging as the core of the global rivalry between the US and its allies and China. Increasingly as newer players are entering into the Indo-Pacific region with the aim to further the existing normative order, the space for addressing challenges in the region is providing the opportunity to explore newer areas of collaboration. The Blue Dot Network is emerging as one such area.
The idea of the BDN took shape under the Trump administration in November 2019 and was unveiled at the 35th ASEAN Summit that was held in Bangkok. In some senses this was similar to the announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative that Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled in September 2013 as part of his state visit to Indonesia, for the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Both these initiatives were unveiled in Southeast Asian capitals, clearly emphasising the importance of the region in their calculations, as the area remains vital to issues of connectivity in the wider Indo-Pacific.
The view of the BRI solely as an economic outreach initiative is becoming myopic. Progressively countries have expressed concerns over the manner in which the BRI is pushing states into a debt trap, even as vulnerabilities are beginning to creep in over the limits of a country’s strategic autonomy that can be impaired as a factor of the debt trap. The question that raises concerns particularly about the BRI are the motives that drive the construction of certain deep sea ports in the Indo-Pacific region: These do not seem to have any operational viability, raising the question as to why the Chinese are willing to continue these projects. The cost of building these ports without a clear sense of their feasibility has been a source of concern for those observing Beijing’s rapid expansion of infrastructure capabilities in a region where several smaller states are critically starved for infrastructure and are drawing closer to the Chinese fold through their vulnerability and openness for infrastructure investments from that nation.
With regards to the BDN, initially the region did not respond with much enthusiasm—especially as the Trump administration had little time for ASEAN, as was evident from the repeated absence of the US president in key ASEAN meetings, his preoccupation with China and the trade war that was raging. Earlier efforts of the Obama administration to promote the idea of an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) also have not seen much progress in the region, particularly given the enormous costs involved in linking the overland routes between South and Southeast Asia through a network of road, railway and maritime port linkages.
The core agenda of the Blue Dot Network is to assist smaller countries in developing quality infrastructure that would comply with international certification, particularly focusing on the need to promote transparency and openness related to the investments. This critically emphasised, by implication, that the BRI was not transparent and did not adhere to international certification standards. In January 2020, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China carried out a survey that revealed lack of transparency in procurements as a key factor that limited the participation of European companies. As China’s relations with other key economic partners has deteriorated, the focus of regional countries endorsing the BRI has seen a significant change. Australia, a key economic partner of China, publicly pulled out of the BRI in April 2021 after the two countries saw a rapid decline in bilateral ties since early last year. India, which has rejected the BRI on grounds of violation of its territory, has seen a drastic dip in bilateral ties with China. New Delhi will not be open to any shift in its position on the BRI, given the sovereignty violations and the Beijing-Islamabad nexus promoted through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The BDN actually offers India a better opportunity to cooperate with its partners in the Quad to develop its strategies in consonance with countries with which it is closely aligned to promote the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. As the US, Australia and Japan push the initiative forward, India would be better served by deepening its relations with its Quad partners.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi (email@example.com)