Infrastructure and Development
Project Overview: infrastructural Frontiers and belt and road Rail development in Laos
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 (BRI; 一带一路).
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. First announced in 2013, it commits USD$1 trillion to massive infrastructure projects, such as roads, rail, seaports and airports. 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.
Numerous explanations for this 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. 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, 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”. To understand how BRI investments are ‘made tangible’, this research examines the Pan-Asian Railway in Laos as a case of China’s burgeoning and commanding position in south-south development. It develops a 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.