Infrastructure and Development

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Project Overview: All silk roads lead to China

First announced in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI; 一带一路) commits USD$1 trillion to massive infrastructure projects, such as roads, rail, seaports and airports. Numerous explanations for China’s massive push for infrastructure development are circulating, and include the expansion of trade routes, the promotion of peace and cooperation, and the provision of necessary infrastructures to developing countries. The scope and scale of the BRI has profound implications for geopolitics, capital markets and the environment: The initiative spans 69 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe, meaning approximately 4 billion people, three-quarters of the world’s energy resources, and one-third of global GDP, promising connection, prosperity, and sustainable development. The primary motivation of the BRI is to bolster economic growth and as such, reports of new trade corridors and more efficient transportation networks often lead the headlines.

Yet this is only part of the story. Part of China’s legitimacy as a development actor is rooted in its non-western, non-colonial background as well as rhetoric of no-strings-attached cooperation. As such, BRI projects are appealing to many host governments and actors. As BRI infrastructures are exported across the world at unprecedented rates not only do they herald a shakeup of the current global order, but also galvanize local involvement and changes to the livelihoods, landscapes, regulations, resources, and financing that sustain them. 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”.  While it is too early to measure the impacts of many BRI projects, it is crucial to understand how Chinese-backed development unfolds from the ground up.

This research focused on the Sino-Laos Railway in northern Laos, a section of the Pan-Asian Railway and key BRI project. Between 2016 and 2020 China will invest at least USD$567 billion in rail construction (Ker 2017). Railroads involve massive influxes of nonlocal capital, people, and goods over large distances; they connect previously remote places, restructure landscapes and social relations, and can serve as physical manifestations of power (Elinoff 2017; Gordillo 2014; Monson 2009). High-speed rail has become a symbol of China’s technological prowess and a source of national pride, and the term ‘high speed rail diplomacy’ was coined to describe the economic, social, and cultural connections it is intended to create.