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The Power of Blank Spaces: A Critical Cartography of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Authors: Galen Murton*, James Madison University
Topics: Political Geography, Development, Asia
Keywords: Critical cartography, Belt and Road Initiative, infrastructures, geopolitics, China, Tibet
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

A variety of maps depict a usefully approximate but inexact network of roads, rails, sealanes, and other transport infrastructures to represent something called China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And yet, for a global infrastructural program that reflects and advances Beijing’s ambition to become a leader of international development, BRI maps remain surprisingly imprecise and unofficial. Taking this ‘usefully fuzziness’ (Nairn and Agnew 2019) as a starting point and drawing on methods of historical and critical cartography, I read BRI maps as texts of ‘cartographic silence’ (Harley 2001) to show how they do work (Wood 2010) in the negative register of empty space. My geographic focus on Highland Asia and the Tibetan Plateau reveals the region’s conspicuous absence from many BRI maps and draws attention to the risks inherent to building infrastructures across geologically shaky and geopolitically unstable landscapes. With a view back to the mapping of empire (Edney 1999), I also consider recent authoritarian activity in Tibet and Xinjiang to ask how blanks in the BRI map simultaneously support Beijing’s pursuit of infrastructural and economic priorities and obscure the specificities of place where human rights abuses are otherwise conspicuous. Highlighting fundamental connections between cartography and empire, I underscore how mapping is both a strategic ‘state of the art’ and an imperial ‘art of the state’ (Mundy 1996).

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