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Interview

China's Belt and Road impact 'limited' so far, Bombardier says

Complexity of overseas infrastructure development slowing pace

Workers at Dazhou railway station in Sichuan Province, China inspect track along a Belt and Road freight rail route linking Chongqing to Duisburg, Germany.    © Reuters

HONG KONG -- China's flagship Belt and Road initiative is having a limited impact on infrastructure development across Asia, according to an executive at one of the largest Western transportation companies active in the region.

"I think the implementation has been slower than what had been expected in the beginning," Gregory Enjalbert, vice-president of Bombardier Transportation's Asia-Pacific rail control solutions, told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview.

"In most places, [there] has not been much of an impact at this point," said Bangkok-based Enjalbert. "I think there is still a lot to be done in terms of real project implementation."

Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road plan with great fanfare five and half years ago. Beijing says it wants to enhance regional connectivity through a infrastructure network that links swathes of Asia, Africa and Europe with highways, rail lines, ports and other projects. But critics say it is an attempt by China to boost its global dominance, and a number of countries are becoming increasingly concerned about being lured into debt traps.

For its part, Bombardier has been supplying trains and signaling systems for metro and rail systems across the region, including projects in India, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Canadian company generated $1.14 billion from such contracts in the region last year, up 7.1% from 2017.

In Enjalbert's view, the slow pace of progress with BRI projects is partly because of the complexity of such large-scale programs and the number of parties involved.

"Establishing new infrastructure projects is always a challenging undertaking that can be impacted by many different factors," Enjalbert said.

Chinese planners are used to the country's own controlled environment for infrastructure development and have often found it difficult to adapt widely varying conditions elsewhere.

A Belt and Road project to build a high-speed rail line between Jakarta and the Indonesian city of Bandung has been hindered by issues with land acquisition and budget overruns, Enjalbert noted. Last year's national election in Malaysia brought to power a government that put BRI rail projects on hold. And the start of work on a planned high-speed line from Bangkok to Thailand's northern border has been held up by slow progress on financial and other arrangements.

"I think the approach is very much country by country," Enjalbert said. "Some [countries] have backed away from it, some have embraced it," he added, citing Pakistan as an example of where projects have made progress.

"Anything which is about creating a lot of infrastructure, actually increasing the infrastructure in the region and connecting the different countries, I think is a good initiative," he said. "Most of the investment is to come. I think in terms of how [the BRI] has impacted us, it's not so much so far."

A key issue in the trade tensions between Beijing and Washington has been the Chinese practice of requiring foreign companies to transfer technologies to local partners as the price of market access. Such transfers by Bombardier and other foreign train makers are seen to have helped create formidable Chinese producers like CRRC that are now beating them to contracts in foreign markets.

Bombardier operates in China through six joint ventures, including one with CRRC.

"The level playing field is there [in China's domestic market] but it is a difficult one because Chinese companies have developed a lot in the past few years," Enjalbert said. "We are the most successful Western company in the railway [area] in China."

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