SINGAPORE (Sept 10): China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is most often seen through a lens of hard infrastructure — roads and bridges. It is one perspective, but it ignores the development of metaphysical, or soft, infrastructure. These are words written in regulations, treaties and trade agreements. By themselves, they cannot build a bridge, but they can stop a bridge from being built or determine how it is built. Understanding this soft infrastructure is vital because it affects how we will do business with China in the future.

Infrastructure projects lead to many cross-border commercial disputes that are resolved by national and international tribunals, including the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Court of Arbitration. The rules of arbitration have largely been set by Western-based organisations — the very ones that US President Donald Trump is either destroying or ignoring.

This destruction makes an alternative both necessary and more attractive. China has established two international courts to handle disputes around projects under the BRI. One court is based in Shenzhen and will handle disputes arising along the maritime “Road”; another based in Xi’an will handle cases along the overland “Belt”.

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