Australian participation in Asia-Pacific infrastructure initiatives - with Jeffrey Wilson

Guest: Jeffrey Wilson, academic, policy analyst and consultant; Senior Lecturer, Murdoch University; Head of Research, Perth USAsia Centre

Host: James Laurenceson, Deputy Director, Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), University of Technology Sydney

While the Asia-Pacific region has well-developed institutional infrastructure, its physical infrastructure lags behind. This constrains economic integration and undermines development efforts. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as infrastructure initiatives introduced by other countries, seek to fill these gaps.

How has the Australian government approached regional infrastructure initiatives? How have Australia’s partners responded to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? How might Australia engage with the BRI coherently and in the national interest? How could the AIIB facilitate this engagement?

Jeffrey Wilson joins James Laurenceson to discuss the key findings of his recent ACRI research report, ‘Connecting the Asia-Pacific: Australian participation in China’s regional infrastructure activities’.

While there is a binary debate in Australia about whether we should be ‘in or out’ of the BRI, the initiative itself is diverse. There is no central plan or core strategy, and projects are planned on a case-by-case basis. It’s therefore almost impossible to define what the BRI is and is not. This diversity has resulted in reservations among regional actors. However, countries including Japan and India have undertaken to increase their level of involvement without formally ‘signing up’. While engagement with the BRI doesn’t need to be a ‘yes or no’ choice, governments should be clear about how they wish to engage and put their proposals on the table.

The Australian government has been sending mixed messages about its policy towards the BRI. This has led to incoherence and has limited the government’s ability to represent its interests. A more nuanced position is needed.

Major infrastructure projects are inherently risky. Therefore the question for Australia is: what can Australia do to manage risks and build governance mechanisms to make these projects more sustainable? In order to have a say, Australia will need to be engaged.

The AIIB is the key to Australia’s engagement with the BRI. The AIIB offers governance guarantees and transparent rules. Australia and many of its partners played a part in shaping these rules; AIIB involvement in BRI projects would raise confidence in their quality and sustainability.

The BRI is not the only story in Asia-Pacific infrastructure development. There are dozens of competing initiatives, such as Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and the Masterplan for ASEAN Connectivity. In order to remain relevant, Australia should consider engaging with these other initiatives as well as the BRI.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

July 19 2018