March 19, 2020

This chapter offers a small-state perspective on the presence of China’s connectivity-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia, a prioritized region of the rising power’s economic statecraft, especially since President Xi Jinping announced the initiative in late 2013. Viewing “connectivity” and “gaps” as two sides of the same coin, the chapter focuses on the role of the BRI in bridging key gaps in the host countries. Among the key findings is that the effects of China’s BRI push – taking place alongside the pulls of several host countries – have been mixed: bridging links are being developed, but missed links persist. Specifically, while the growing BRI presence is showing early signs of narrowing the physical and developmental gaps in several Southeast Asian countries, the process has also highlighted the enduring – and in some cases deepening – perceptual and political gaps between China and host countries. This chapter argues that the persistent gaps and missed links are a product of power asymmetries, bilateral complexities, and divergent domestic political imperatives across the countries. Significantly, while the gaps have constrained and challenged China’s BRI agenda, they have also motivated Beijing to devote more capital, diplomatic resources, and political will to the cross-border negotiation treadmills with the smaller countries, especially as competing powers enter the Asian connectivity game one after another. Further strengthening the bridging links and addressing the missed links is central to the prospects of the BRI in shaping global governance in the twenty-first century.


Dr. Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate professor at the Strategic Studies and International Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), and concurrently an associate fellow at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya (UM). He is the co-founder and co-convener of the East Asian International Relations (EAIR) Caucus, a research platform for exchange, engagement, and empowerment among foreign affairs professionals in Malaysia. Dr. Kuik is an adjunct lecturer at the Malaysian Armed Forces Defense College (under Ministry of Defense) and the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (under Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Previously he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and the World” Program (CWP) and a visiting research fellow at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Kuik’s research concentrates on weaker states’ foreign policy behavior, state alignment choices, regional multilateralism, East Asian security, China-ASEAN relations, and Malaysia’s external policy. His publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Journal of Contemporary ChinaContemporary Southeast AsiaChinese Journal of International PoliticsAsian SecurityChina: An International JournalAsian Politics and PolicyEast Asian PolicyShijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, as well as edited books. Cheng-Chwee’s essay “The Essence of Hedging” was awarded the biennial 2009 Michael Leifer Memorial Prize by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for the best article published in any of the three ISEAS journals. He is a co-editor (with Alice Ba and Sueo Sudo) of Institutionalizing East Asia: Mapping and Reconfiguring Regional Cooperation (Routledge 2016). His current projects include: hedging in international relations, ASEAN states’ responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (with Lee Jones), and politics of China-related railroad projects in Southeast Asia (with David Lampton and Selina Ho). Cheng-Chwee serves on the editorial boards/ committee of Contemporary Southeast AsiaAustralian Journal of International AffairsAsian Perspective, and Routledge’s “IR Theory and Practice in Asia” Book Series. He holds an M.Litt. from the University of St. Andrews, and a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Cheng-Chwee can be contacted at