Grid geopolitics: Emergent geographies of energy infrastructure in northern Laos

Authors: Michael Dwyer*, Indiana University
Topics: Political Geography, Energy, Development
Keywords: political ecology, energy, hydropower, Laos, Mekong region, China, neoliberalism, geopolitics
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

From plantation concessions to economic corridors to export hydropower, Laos has for decades exemplified the transnational resource connectivity often associated with political-economic dependency. Using the example of Chinese state investment in northern Lao hydropower, this paper asks whether a different, geopolitical logic is emerging in Laos’s energy sector, and if so, what its implications might be for geographies of energy development, as well as for associated regional and international relations. Since the 1990s, energy has paralleled the Lao agribusiness and mining sectors in following a neoliberal logic, in which external rather than domestic demand drives investment in potentially productive landscapes. But with the entry of Chinese state-owned enterprises into Laos’s northern energy grid, this has arguably begun to change, as investment seems driven less by export electricity demand than by diplomatic considerations and the need to maintain Chinese state investment abroad. This paper focuses, first, on the empirical question of how and where new hydropower resources currently under development in northern Laos are likely to be consumed; and second, on the more hypothetical question of what it might take to shift current trajectories of business-as-usual hydropower toward more just and sustainable alternatives. I suggest that the geopolitical logic inherent in the current shift is important, but that it masks a different political economy – that of Chinese SoE momentum – that must also be addressed, presumably using some configuration of climate finance, if the transition to a 21st-century energy geography is to be achieved.

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