China Unicom has built the US$50 million China-Myanmar International (CMI) terrestrial link. But it is yet to be activated for unknown reasons and Myanmar keeps suffering from outages. Now Beijing has ceremoniously announced its plan to build a Sino-ASEAN submarine cable network without revealing any details.
South Asia and Southeast Asia has become the hotbed of Sino-Japanese rivalry, especially after the formation of AIIB. This new development bank has gained unprecedented global membership at a lightning pace. It has crowned China as a new power in the world stage of financial diplomacy.
Beijing should, however, be cautious about regional infrastructure development initiatives. Roads, railway tracks, power transmission grids and gas pipelines can be developed regionally. But regional cross-border telecoms network is quite a risky affair, if implemented through a bilateral protocol.
Nine years ago Beijing has spent US$17.6 million to build GMS-IS terrestrial network. It has never worked, as the network is exclusively owned by the state-owned carriers. The private carriers have naturally stayed away from it. Yet China has kept the GMS-IS close to its heart till today. And the China-ASEAN submarine cable is more of a politically motivated intra-Asian telecoms project. Because, it is a duplicated smaller version of SEA-ME-WE 5 and AAE-1 submarine cable systems.
China is clearly missing the bigger picture. AIIB is a multilateral platform and Asian Highway is a multi-country cross-border road communication initiative being fostered by the UN ESCAP. Laying optical fiber along the Asian Highway has been identified as the most effective way to connect the “have nots” of Asia. ESCAP calls it the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) initiative.
Asia boasts the world’s widest system of seamless physical connectivity – 143 000 km of the Asian Highway and another 117 000 km of Trans-Asian Railway networks. Cemented by intergovernmental treaties and administered by ESCAP, they offer an unmatched opportunity for co-habitation of ICT and transport networks – synchronizing optical fibre conduit rollout with land transportation construction. Aside from cost savings of up to 80 per cent, this ‘dig once – use many times’ approach expands and diversifies the revenues generated by infrastructure construction: a win-win for governments, private sector investors and newly-connected communities.
AIIB should closely work with ESCAP to impalement the AP-IS. It deals with 32 countries of Asia and Europe. This initiative is uniquely pro-poor as well as pro-market. The industry badly needs it while developing Asia needs it the most. Beijing may think it over.