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Economy

China seeks Southeast Asia clout with Belt and Road projects

Indonesian high-speed railway aimed at showing benefits of siding with Beijing

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The Belt and Road initiative includes a land route from China through central Asia to Europe and a sea route linking Southeast Asia to India, the Middle East and Africa.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- The Chinese government will use the upcoming international forum on its Belt and Road Initiative to show what it can offer Southeast Asia, hoping to strengthen its hand in the region.

Heads of state and other dignitaries from 28 countries will attend the gathering, taking place here Sunday and Monday. Among the participants are leaders from Southeast Asia, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Beijing hopes that its joint high-speed railway project with Indonesia will be a showcase of the Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy to connect a vast range of countries and regions, invoking the ancient Silk Road trade route.

The Indonesian rail project itself would not be very profitable for China, said Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University of China with expertise on the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing also shoulders sizable risk by funding most of the construction. But the project is being taken as a centerpiece of the country's plan to develop a maritime Silk Road of sorts -- one of the initiative's two routes.

Belt and Road covers a land path from central Asia to Europe and a sea route linking Southeast Asia to India, the Middle East and Africa. China values the latter route more, for reasons of energy security.

About 80% of China's crude oil imports apparently passes through the Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Beijing fears that the U.S., whose military wields heavy influence in the region, could choke off that passage. By bringing Southeast Asia into its corner, China hopes to weaken U.S. sway in the long term.

Countries that rely too heavily economically on Beijing risk being susceptible to unofficial sanctions of sorts should they run counter to its interests. When South Korea angered China by agreeing to host the U.S. military's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, Chinese tourism to the country suddenly dropped, as did sales of South Korean automobiles in China. Southeast Asian countries are struggling to decide how to answer Beijing's advances.

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