Japanese official Tadashi Maeda dismisses China’s Belt and Road Initiative as just a ‘political show’

China’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative, is a “political show” that lacks real substance, the head of Japan’s international development agency said on Thursday, adding that Japan ultimately hopes to include Taiwan as a participant in its China-containment project.

Speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tadashi Maeda, governor of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), criticised the belt and road project, saying it lacked real “programmes” to help the developing world.

“BRI is just a political show, and there is no clear definition of what it is exactly … it’s just everywhere,” Maeda said of the initiative, which spans multiple continents.

“I think China does not fully understand” sustainability issues and other implications involved with the projects, including climate changes, he said, also noting that some belt and road participants suffer from heavy debt loads related to projects in their countries.

Japan is concerned that the belt and road projects are accelerating China’s growing global clout, and both Japanese and US leaders worry that the initiative could ultimately change the economic order enjoyed by the traditional powers.

China’s initiative, which began in 2013, has long faced international scrutiny. Beijing has been accused of using it to further its political agenda and to attain more power and influence amid its rivalry with the US.

As criticism grew, Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted last year that Beijing was adjusting its strategy in promoting the project, saying that his New Silk Road plan was not about creating a “China club” but was meant to improve the quality of lives for people of the partnering countries.

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“[Japan's initiative] is different. It is based on three pillars: promotion of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade,” said Maeda, who formerly served as a special adviser to the Japanese cabinet.

“In some sense, this is a counterproposal to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.”

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy is Japan’s version of the plan, and Maeda said Tokyo was paying special attention to the “treatment of Taiwan” as it develops further.

“I had private meetings with a national security adviser of Taiwan, and also the foreign minister of Taiwan” about Taipei’s participation in the project, Maeda said.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has suggested that Beijing is adjusting its strategy in promoting the belt and road project, which has come under criticism. Photo: Reuters
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has suggested that Beijing is adjusting its strategy in promoting the belt and road project, which has come under criticism. Photo: Reuters

“Taiwan has already engaged [the Japan-led economic initiatives] on a transaction-by-transaction level [from] a year ago,” he added without elaborating.

Maeda said that Japan “cannot invite Taiwan as an official partner”, but that it was possible for the self-ruled island to take part in the China-containment strategy on a transactional level.

“Transaction-by-transaction would enable Taiwan to take part in the project” in supporting FOIP, he added.

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The term “Indo-Pacific” first emerged as regional strategic framework in US politics in 2010 when then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton used it to signal renewed American interest in the area.

The approach was reinforced in 2016 when FOIP was introduced. The US government further articulated the concept in 2017, stressing the need to combine military and geoeconomic goals to contain China’s military expansion, as well as to provide alternative development models to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Timothy Heath, a former analyst at US Pacific Command who is now a senior international defence researcher at the RAND Corporation, said the US would likely “welcome a stronger Taiwan role in Japan’s FOIP programme”.

“The message this sends is that the United States and Japan are willing to work with Taiwan and others to bolster the FOIP, even if this antagonises China,” he said. “A closer Taiwan partnership with Japan and the US also weakens Beijing’s hopes of peacefully coercing Taiwan into unification.”

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John Sitilides, geopolitical strategist at Trilogy Advisors in Washington, said Taiwan’s participation “will have little direct impact on China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative”.

“Ultimately, Tokyo’s message to Beijing is predicated on the necessary economic, political and diplomatic engagement of the world’s second largest economy just several hundred miles across the East China Sea,” Sitilides said.

“At the same time, Japan will retain and further consolidate its independent foreign and defence policies, alliances and trade agreements, including opportunities for greater trade benefits with Taiwan, while granting formal diplomatic recognition only for the People’s Republic of China.”

The shared goal for Tokyo and Washington, he said, “would be to check China’s assertive regional growth and power projection strategies”.

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