Australia joined the United States and Japan in announcing the Blue Dot Network this week, a scheme some observers have billed as a rival to China’s Belt & Road Initiative.
The Culmination of years of three way cooperation, it was finally unveiled at a business forum in Bangkok by US officials.
Chinese ascendancy in the Asia-Pacific has come at a time where US President Donald Trump has abandoned the “pivot to Asia” of the Obama years.
Despite its waning influence in the region, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told an audience in Bangkok “the Indo-Pacific is the single-most consequential region for America’s future”.
“The Trump administration is extremely engaged and fully committed to this region.”
So what is the Blue Dot Network, why is Australia involved, and what has China made of all this so far?
What Exactly is the Blue Dot Network?
The official release refers to the Blue Dot Network as “a multi-stakeholder initiative to bring together governments, the private sector and civil society to promote high-quality, trusted standards for global infrastructure development”.
While vague, it’s essentially expected to serve as a globally recognised evaluation and certification system for roads, ports and bridges with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region — a “seal of approval”, according to the US State Department.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien likened it to the Michelin Guide — which provides restaurants around the world stars for excellence.
While it has been reported on as the West’s response to China’s ambitious and controversial Belt & Road Initiative, the two appear to be fundamentally different.
Under Belt & Road, the Chinese Government and state-owned enterprises finance international projects by providing everything from concrete, steel, workers and cash an approach labelled by some as debt-trap diplomacy.
Mr Ross said it was about “supporting alternatives to predatory lending”, by facilitating foreign investment in projects given a thumbs-up by the consortium.
“If you don’t have a trillion dollars to waste on concrete, it’s a way to make a contribution,” Jeffrey Wilson, director of the Perth USAsia Centre, said.
He likened it to “an episode of Utopia” the ABC comedy series that follows a fictional government authority that oversees major infrastructure projects whereby Australia, the US and Japan will provide technical expertise, rather than huge amounts of investment and capital. “We’re sending out a team of lead Utopia character Tony Woodfords,” Mr Wilson said.
Why has Australia joined in ‘Spearheading’ It?
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) along with American and Japanese counterparts who are all listed in official releases as “spearheading” the initiative, say the scheme will provide finance and greater transparency into poorer countries across the region.
Officials have said it is about ensuring “principles-based” and “sustainable” investment in infrastructure.
DFAT Deputy Secretary Richard Maude said amid the launch, the Australian Government is “looking forward to working closely with regional partners to develop the Blue Dot Network to take action” on promoting quality infrastructure and facilitating investment in the Indo-Pacific region.
The ABC contacted DFAT, seeking clarification about the initiative, its alleged response to China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which Canberra has opted to not sign up to but they did not respond by deadline.
However, analysts have been quick to deduce the Blue Dot Network is likely about controlling regional power, as it reflects a shared Indo-Pacific strategy among states keen to offset China’s rising power in the region.
For Australia, this “coalition of like-mindedness” is an opportunity to maintain Washington’s engagement with Asia and deepen ties with Tokyo, according to Bates Gill, an expert of US-China relations at Macquarie University.
“Australia wins because this is a small but important example of keeping America in and diversifying partnerships with important players in the region like Japan,” he told the ABC.
Mr Ross told reporters this week America had “no intention of vacating our military or geographical position”.
“We are here permanently, and we will be continuing to invest more here,” Mr Ross said
Mr. Wilson added that the Blue Dot Network was about providing foreign companies, often reluctant to invest in developing countries due to concerns about corruption or climate change, the right information about which projects to invest in.
“There’s actually an extremely large amount of money wanting to do this,” he told the ABC.
“I’m sure our superannuation [providers] would love to invest in a long-term asset like a major road in Indonesia.”
How has China Responded & What Next?
While the Western media and analysts have been quick to liken the Blue Dot Network to Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative, the launch hardly even registered in the Chinese media, nor was it raised during foreign affairs press briefings in Beijing.
However, one opinion piece published by state-owned Global Times this week said the Blue Dot Network would be “doomed to fail” if the US sought to “divide the region” and “force other countries to take sides”.
Relations with China, Australia’s most important trading partner have deteriorated in recent years amid accusations Beijing was meddling in domestic affairs and influence in the Pacific region.
Beijing recently clapped back at Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s criticism of China’s human rights record.
“The Blue Dot Network should never be used as a stumbling block to ‘rival’ China & hinder China’s cooperation with other regional members”
“Instead, with the growing investments of both the US and China, the two countries can join hands for better cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.”
Meanwhile, another fiery editorial also published by the Global Times argued that forcing Asian countries to “serve the Star-Spangled Banner wholeheartedly” was an “insult to their wisdom and dignity”.
It concluded that the Indo-Pacific strategy, “will be eventually recorded as a shameful story in the history of international relations”.
However, US-China expert Bates Gill said despite the headlines, it was still too early to predict what the impact on regional dynamics could be, let alone understand the finer details of the Blue Dot Network’s ambitions.
“I think we’ll have to wait and see what this consortium, the Blue Dot Network, actually achieves.”