Hailed by Chinese president Xi Jinping as the 'project of the century,' China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)/One Belt, One Road (OBOR) suggests a 21st century return to infrastructure as a platform for national and global development (Ferdinand 2016, Liu and Dunford 2017). As the U.S. retreats from international leadership, China's leaders are using the BRI to signify and narrate their own version of modernization, in Asia and beyond (Sidaway and Woon 2017). With unprecedented levels of financial commitment – including a projected US$900 billion already backed by China's Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and Silk Road Fund (Menon 2017) – and more than sixty countries involved across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, the transformative potential and discursive power of the BRI appear to be one in the same. And indeed, the stunning number of policy-oriented publications on the BRI since 2016 suggests intense international interest in China's global infrastructure plans. Yet these analyses tend to focus on the geopolitical and financial drivers of the BRI; very few consider or provide and more place-based engagement, or a view "from the ground."
The aim of these multiple sessions is to bring conversations about the BRI to more place-based, material analysis informed by field-based experience and examination. Our intention is to approach the BRI with a critical lens, focusing on concrete BRI projects in stages of both planning and construction. We engage the BRI as a set of expanding investments, practices, and discourses, and analyze how BRI projects shape livelihoods and environments in specific places, from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, to the Central Asian Steppe, Eastern Europe, and beyond to Africa and the Americas. In so doing, we aim to complicate the narrative of the BRI as a monolithic strategy by highlighting disjunctures between projects and the actors who both facilitate and contest them. Moreover, we also seek to examine how BRI initiatives converge and diverge with broader processes of China's global integration, focusing on infrastructure investments and other engagements with regions of Africa and Latin America that were not formally included in early BRI policy papers.
We invite critically-engaged papers using a range of theoretical frameworks to explore and generate new conversations around the following five topics: (1) discourse and representations of BRI; (2) corridors and chokepoints for the flow of goods, people, and ideas; (3) socio-economic impacts and local experiences of BRI projects; (4) new environmental initiatives (and consequences) of BRI infrastructure; and (5) the shifting scope and scale of BRI initiatives across wider geographical groundings. Questions that these sessions will explore include: To what extent is there a programmatic (and not just discursive) continuity between China's Open Up the West campaign, Going Out strategy, and the BRI (Yeh and Wharton 2016)? What is China's role in international aid, and to what extent can the BRI be considered at least partly a humanitarian intervention? To what extent does the BRI present a solution (real or proposed) to problems of domestic overcapacity and inter-firm competition? What roles do maps and Silk Road imaginaries play in shaping the discourse and material outcomes of the BRI? What can a focus on the "petty politics" of concrete projects reveal about broader shifts in geopolitical and economic relations that the BRI entails, including the geographical outlines of BRI initiatives themselves?
Individual Session Abstracts
Session 1 - Mapping the BRI: Textual and discourse analysis of the new 'Silk Roads'
The BRI refers to a well-established Silk Road imaginary of trans-continental connectivity. In this session, we interrogate the role that such an imaginary plays through the analysis of maps, texts, political speeches, and other discursively powerful depictions of the 'Silk Road' as a coherent framework of connectivity vs. a more complex and always changing assemblage of routes, people, markets, and other infrastructures.
Session 2 - Corridors and chokepoints: Spaces of movement and consolidation
Corridors are an essential part of the BRI's vision, and the term has become ubiquitous both inside and outside of China (e.g. China Pakistan Economic Corridor). At the same time, along and across China's frontiers, new border regimes include trade and customs houses as well as increasingly militarized security installations that regulate and at times obstruct the flow of goods. Through an analysis of specific case studies of new BRI projects including border posts, sea lanes, and maritime/dry ports, this session addresses the paradoxical co-existence of corridors and chokepoints as places of passage, accumulation, blockage, and political control.
Session 3 - Social lives and community experiences: Ethnographic engagements with BRI development projects
In contrast to policy-oriented and media-driven forecasts of the BRI as a grand mechanism for inter-continental connectivity and economic growth, this session instead takes a grounded and ethnographic approach to examine local experiences with specific BRI projects. Papers in the session explore community-level experiences with BRI projects in order to compare and contrast the unevenness of development programs, and to discuss how these infrastructural interventions affect and transform various places called home.
Session 4 - Political Ecology: Energy, extraction, degradation
While trade corridors and transportation networks often lead the headlines, many BRI projects are also driven by the potential extraction of natural resources and large scale development projects present direct threats of environmental degradation. By examining the intersections of BRI development programs and the ecosystems that they affect, this session provides a closer examination of the environmental aspects of BRI initiatives and how ecological impacts are managed and contested between local and policy levels.
Session 5 – Scope and scale: How (or if) Pacific Islands, Africa and Latin America fit within the BRI
Although originally aimed at Eurasian countries and connections alone, BRI discourses have been evolving and evoking interest from African and Latin American actors seeking inclusion in this initiative, bringing the Office of Belt and Road Construction to formally "welcome" the participation of these regions since May 2017. Prospects for inclusion of these regions in BRI projects remain limited, however, sometimes even criticized for "overextending" China's reach. This session provides case study-based examinations of the evolving scope and scale of BRI, analyzing whether it amounts to a regional prioritization of Eurasia for China's diplomatic and economic engagements, or a broader framework for China's global integration.
Session 6 – Roundtable discussion on the big picture themes and concerns of the BRI
Alves, A. C. (2013). China's "win-win" cooperation: Unpacking the impact of infrastructure-for-resources deals in Africa. South African Journal of International Affairs, 20(2), 207–226.
Ferdinand, P. (2016). Westward ho-the China dream and "One Belt, One Road": Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping. International Affairs, 92(4), 941–957.
Liu, W., & Dunford, M. (2016). Inclusive globalization: Unpacking China's Belt and Road Initiative. Area Development and Policy, 1(3), 323–340.
Menon, S. (2017). The unprecedented promises - and threats - of the Belt and Road Initiative. Brookings Institution, published 28 April 2017. Available at https://www.brookings.edu/ opinions/the-unprecedented-promises-and-threats-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative/
Mol, A. P. J. (2011). China's ascent and Africa's environment. Global Environmental Change, 21(3), 785–794.
Sidaway, J.T. & Woon, C.H. (2017): Chinese Narratives on "One Belt, One Road" (一带一路) in Geopolitical and Imperial Contexts. The Professional Geographer 69(4), 591-603.
Yeh, E. T., & Wharton, E. (2016). Going West and Going Out: Discourses, migrants, and models in Chinese development. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 57(3), 286–315.
|Presenter||Galen Murton*, James Madison University, Infrastructural imaginaries: Chinese investments and Nepal’s development dreams||12||5:20 PM|
|Presenter||Yang Yang*, University of Colorado at Boulder, Connecting Saudi Arabia to China’s new Silk Road through the Hajj: Local infrastructures, multiple imaginations of the global Ummah, and the Hui in Xi’an, China||12||5:32 PM|
|Presenter||Kelly Wanjing Chen*, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Speculating Belt and Road: The Role of Brokers in Chinese Overseas Capitalism in Laos||12||5:44 PM|
|Presenter||Andrew Grant*, University of Colorado At Boulder, Khorgos: Politics of Passage at the Silk Bridge between China and Kazakhstan||12||5:56 PM|
|Presenter||Hui-Chun Liu*, University College London , From Frontier to Maritime Silk Road: Special Economic Zone, Everyday Geopolitics and Local Development of Fuzhou and Pingtan in China||12||6:08 PM|
|Discussant||Xiaobo Su University of Oregon||20||6:20 PM|
|Discussant||Alessandro Rippa LMU Munich||20||6:40 PM|
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