The circular causation of institutional support and perception on the Belt and Road Initiative

SINCE its inception ten years ago, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been diversely perceived on the global front, yet its influence trajectory remains upward and the benefits it brings are evident.

The Nanyang Technological University RSIS Working Paper No. 325 identified the three most likely benefits of BRI.

Firstly, the BRI expands trade, investment and tourism with China and other BRI members – it stimulates economic growth and technological advancement; and it helps close the infrastructure financing gap of BRI members.

Perception is a subjective matter. Different people may have different perspectives on the same thing. However, a reasonable positive perception may give certain beneficial outcomes.

Therefore, perception should be managed with proper dissemination of information, engagement, research and dialogue.

In this case, the collective institutional support of BRI from the government, business communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), members of the academia and community leaders are crucial in tapping the benefits of BRI.

Applying Michel Foucault's philosophy of power-knowledge, institutional support (power) can cultivate a good perception (knowledge) of BRI. Reciprocally, the good perception of BRI brings positive benefits that can justify and enhance (further) institutional support.

Thus, it is the role of the government and major stakeholders (collectively acting as "institutional support") to harness the positive perception to reap the benefits of BRI and moderate negative perceptions toward a win-win outcome. Three examples where Malaysia did well are worth mentioning here.

The first example, under the administration of then-prime minister Najib Razak, Malaysia staunchly supported the BRI and welcomed investments and BRI-related projects in the country. This institutional support helped to portray a good perception of BRI.

Collectively, the government, business communities and academicians contributed to disseminating proper information about the benefits of BRI through exhibitions, forums, exhibitions, consultative sessions, official trips to China, research papers and conferences.

Positive perception enables Malaysia to further strengthen good Malaysia-China relations and initiate various mega projects with China, through the BRI. The positive spillover from BRI and its related mega projects justified and enhanced further institutional support. This creates circular causation of positive feedback.

The second example was when the Mahathir 2.0 administration tacitly cultivated the modest perception towards BRI into win-win outcomes.

Citing a 2017 survey report by the Socio-Economic Research Center in his journal article, Chin Kok Fey highlighted that nearly half of the respondents had mixed perceptions about the impact of China's investment in Malaysia while about one-third of respondents were optimistic.

This was perhaps dampened by the high cost of BRI-related mega projects and lack of links with local small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had just been appointed as prime minister in May 2018, moderated these perceptions by visiting China in 2018 and declaring Malaysian support for the BRI. This was followed up by renegotiating the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project for a lower cost and higher local participation as well as pushing for more palm oil exports to China.

The third and most recent example further illustrates the importance of government efforts to enhance a better understanding of BRI and foster stronger relations with China to cultivate a good perception of BRI.

Not long after taking office as the 10th Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim expressed Malaysia's intention to continue strengthening ties with China for mutual benefit and prosperity. His subsequent official diplomatic visit to China in March 2023 further enhanced both perceptions of BRI and the Sino-Malaysian relationship.

During the visit, Anwar and China Premier Li Qiang witnessed the signing of three memoranda of understanding (MOU), including one on deepening economic and trade cooperation. Both countries also commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) and the upcoming 50th year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Anwar followed up with a second fruitful visit to China in September 2023 and won China's support for Malaysia's New Industrial Master Plan (NIMP) 2030.

It was also reported the visit resulted in the signing of three MOUs worth a total of RM19.84bil. This will greatly enhance Malaysia-China diplomatic relations and partnership under the BRI.

Perception can be easily swayed by events in Malaysia, China and globally. Despite Malaysia's steadfast position as a non-aligned country, the perception of individual Malaysians on BRI, however, can be personally influenced by the United States-China trade war, Russia-Ukraine conflict or other geo-political events.

Can the newly minted "Spice Route" championed by India during the recent G20 Summit affect the reception of BRI? What are the impacts that local political development, China's economic outlook and global geopolitical conflicts bring to BRI and its perception within the Malaysian context? Malaysians must have a clear understanding, and positive perception of the BRI and believe the benefits it will bring.

Various recommendations have been proposed by different stakeholders to improve the impact and perception of BRI. Key recommendations include calls for good governance, higher local participation in terms of using more local labour and increased partnerships with local SMEs, improved communication and transparency, as well as more high-skilled employment and technology transfer opportunities.

Information dissemination about BRI through social media, Malaysia-China student exchange programmes, BRI-related exhibitions, public talks, dialogues, conferences, seminars and forums may further improve awareness and positive perceptions of BRI.

Perception is like the door between the known and the unknown. Therefore, having a correct and positive perception of BRI will ensure the door opens to a real world of benefits for all stakeholders.

Har Wai Mun is a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

The SEARCH Scholar Series is a social responsibility programme jointly organised by the Southeast Asia Research Centre for Humanities (SEARCH) and Tunku Abdul Rahman University of Management and Technology (TAR UMT), in conjunction with the 10-year anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative.

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