Infrastructural Frontiers and Belt and Road Rail Development in Laos

Authors: Jessica DiCarlo*, University of Colorado
Topics: Development, China, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: development, infrastructure, China, Laos
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Maryland B, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

There has never been railroad through Laos. The British and French empires first proposed a route from Kunming to Singapore in 1900. Potentially from lack of capital or strategic vision, attempts made throughout the 20th century by colonial interests and neighboring countries eager to link piecemeal rail systems in the region fell flat. Yet today, a massive railway project is underway, motivated, financed, and operationalized as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI is a colossal transnational development strategy that promises infrastructure and connectivity and signals a new era in China’s foreign policy and development practice. Academic inquiry has focused on the BRIs geopolitical implications as well as on the economic dimensions of export infrastructure as a ‘spatial fix’ for China’s chronic overproduction crisis. Yet, Tsing (2005, 74) reminds: “For the aspirations of international investors and national elites to emerge as more than a moment’s daydream…they must be made tangible on a regional landscape. They must engage people, places, and environments”. To understand how BRI investments are ‘made tangible’, I utilize the lens of frontier to examine the Pan-Asian Railway in Laos as a case of China’s commanding position in south-south development. This paper presents initial findings and a preliminary framework for thinking through the manifestation and implications of Chinese-backed megaprojects from the ground up. Through an ethnographic approach, I position the rail as an agent of new and lively frontier-making, one that reconfigures property, social relations, and sovereignty, while freeing up resources for new forms of appropriation.

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