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Northeast Asia

Belt and Road: China's gaze shifts to southeast Asia

Overlooked during the early years of the Belt and Road Initiative, the region is now central to the entire project. China is shifting its attention south, and it likes what it sees in the Asean zone: lending opportunities, ambitious consumers and fast-growing states and cities.

When China’s president Xi Jinping floated the idea of a New Silk Road in 2013, eyes turned to the original route that had linked imperial China with India, central Asia and the Mediterranean Sea.

Later, Pakistan became the focal point of this century’s first great geopolitical project. The south Asian nation, handily located on both the overland ‘belt’ and the maritime ‘road’, was starved of cash and infrastructure, and China promised both in return for a reliable trade route from its western border to the Indian Ocean.

But there’s another region, sometimes overlooked in this conversation, that could become not just an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but the glue that binds the entire project together.

Over the last quarter of a century, southeast Asia has had many guises, from kindergarten for the tiger nations to economic basket case in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. But China’s rise this century overshadowed a region that has for years been quietly outperforming.

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