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70 percent of Southeast Asian citizens sceptical of China's Belt and Road Initiative

A survey suggests a vast majority believe their governments should exercise caution dealing with China

Leaders at the November 2018 ASEAN summit

Leaders at the November 2018 ASEAN summit (CNA photo)

Taipei (Taiwan News) — Citizens of ASEAN countries believe their governments should take strict precautions when making deals as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Reuters reports that a recent survey carried out by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, an affiliate of the Singaporean government, revealed, based on those questioned, a large majority (70 percent) of people from ASEAN countries believe their governments “should be cautious in negotiating Belt and Road infrastructure projects, to avoid getting into unsustainable financial debts with China.”

This view was particularly strong among participants from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Almost half of participants said the BRI would bring their nation “closer into China’s orbit,” while a third scrutinized the project’s opacity. 16 percent of those surveyed believe the BRI will fail.

1,008 people were polled from each of the ten ASEAN countries in a wealth of different sectors of society, including the government, academia, the business world and media.

The poll revealed 60 percent of citizens see U.S. influence around the world as having declined over the past year, while a third have little or no confidence in the global power’s commitments to providing regional security.

A number of officials from Western powers have accused China of gaining leverage over weaker nations with “debt trap diplomacy”—a tactic which sees the state offering loans to governments knowing they will not be returned, then acquiring land or political favors as repayment.

Countries that have already succumbed to indebtedness include Pakistan, Angola and Zambia, all of whom have sought assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Sri Lanka relinquished its Hambantota Port in 2018, and last month, it was reported Kenya may hand over its strategic Mombasa Port to Beijing after failure to repay BRI loans.

China’s soft power is currently not faring well, according to the study results, and the authors suggest it should be a “wake-up call for China to burnish its negative image across Southeast Asia.”