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International relations

US 'late' in pushing Blue Dot to counter China's Belt and Road

Infrastructure certification with Japan and Australia taps into debt trap fears

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The world's two biggest economies have competing visions for developing infrastructure globally. (Nikkei Montage/ source photo by Reuters)

TOKYO -- A U.S.-led scheme to counter China's Belt and Road Initiative remains in the embryonic stage -- six years after Beijing unveiled its grand infrastructure plan with great fanfare.

The U.S., Japan and Australia unveiled the Blue Dot Network at a summit in Bangkok earlier this month. The initiative is not intended to be a financing pipeline. Instead, it will evaluate infrastructure projects according to standards set by a steering committee of government agencies, development finance institutions and the private sector.

Worthy projects will be awarded a Blue Dot, piecing together a global map of quality infrastructure undertakings.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation will be on the steering committee, with other members to be announced in the next few weeks. "I certainly expect by 2020 you'll see Blue Dot certified projects around the world," said David Bohigian, president of OPIC.

"It's like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," said a spokesperson for OPIC, comparing the dots to the seal awarded to high-quality home products by the U.S. women's magazine.

The three agencies are also in a trilateral partnership for infrastructure financing in the Indo-Pacific, announced a year ago. But the tie-up has yet to put any significant projects under its umbrella. The nascent Blue Dot system has a lot of catching up to do, as many developing economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America are already in China's orbit.

The Trump administration has made no secret of its desire to counter China's international influence, but "year four in an administration is pretty late in the game," said Daniel Russel, a senior adviser for Asia-Pacific affairs in the Obama administration.

While the Belt and Road was launched as a grand geopolitical strategy, Blue Dot's principal agencies insist that it will not be a governmental initiative, instead letting the private sector take the lead.

"The U.S. government is not effectively configured to herd and direct private companies toward a policy," Russel said. "Unlike China, the U.S. has no tradition of a command economy."

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a group photo session with other world leaders at a welcoming banquet for the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in April.   © Reuters

Blue Dot may serve a role in setting standards for and coordinating public-private partnerships that American, Japanese and Australian companies and development banks are already involved in.

"It will not be easy for this type of cooperative effort to scale up in a way that will make it a significant competitor for China's Belt and Road," said Elizabeth C. Economy, senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "However, it is important to remember that Japan, alone, is already the largest infrastructure investor in Southeast Asia."

While Blue Dot certification currently holds no guarantee of financing, JBIC told the Nikkei Asian Review that the steering committee will discuss the future of financial contributions, an important incentive for developing countries to buy in.

Some experts say host countries need financing more than a certifying mechanism.

"It's certainly not bad to have one, but it's a secondary issue to most countries," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at CFR.

Even while offering project proposals that are sustainable in terms of debt, the environment and societal impact, Japanese institutions have still lost bids to China's offers of cheap, easy money.

Projects backed by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank condition financing on anti-corruption measures and feasibility studies, which a host government's planners often lack the expertise and resources to produce.

"The Chinese were coming with a 'project in a box' that included funding and training," Russel said of the Belt and Road's appeal. "Nobody else is doing that."

Instead of a certifying mechanism, Russel said the U.S. should help host governments develop the capacity to scrutinize infrastructure proposals and negotiate better deals.

Blue Dot could benefit from growing concern about countries like Sri Lanka and Tajikistan becoming unsustainably indebted to China from their Belt and Road projects.

"Many countries are now scrutinizing and questioning the sustainability of their BRI projects," CFR's Economy said. "This leaves an opening for consideration of alternatives to Chinese-led development."

But for the moment, as Blue Dot is still in the incubation phase, Beijing has no reason to feel threatened.

"You can't beat something with nothing," said Russel.

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