Linda Yin-nor Tjia, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong and Jewellord Nem Singh, Leiden University, the Netherlands
Ever since China announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, many academic research, policy reports, and journalistic commentaries have been very sceptical about the intentions and outcomes of such a massive infrastructure plan. On the one hand, China’s slowing economic growth, the unprecedented problem of overcapacity and inevitable development bottlenecks have contributed to drive speculation and interest into the study of the hidden agenda of extractive neo-colonialism, military expansionism and authoritarian statism (Mawdsley 2008; Nyíri 2012). On the other hand, there is now recognition of the great intellectual significance to probe on how the engaging/recipient countries leverage President Xi’s ambitious Chinese dream and the abundance Chinese capital (Duanmu, n.d.; Lee 2017; Liu and Lim 2019). To this extent, recent works have emphasized the ‘highly contingent, extremely loose, and indeterminate nature’ of Chinese grand strategy, driven by both the competing interests within the Chinese state and the divergent domestic dynamics of power in host states (Camba 2020; Jones and Zeng 2019; Klinger and Muldavin 2019; Lee 2017; Tjia 2020).
As a starting point, the multi-faceted nature of China-BRI relations is further complicated by patterns of domestic economic governance. In particular, the rise of China has provided a model of growth for political elites in the Global South to move away from neoliberalism and Washington Consensus as a template for development. Some recent works have outlined the trajectory of Chinese capitalism as a co-evolution between state capacity and dynamic economic markets (Ang 2016; Tsai and Naughton 2015). From resource nationalism to re-engaging with industrial policy, states have begun to articulate some form of state capitalism as a means of asserting sovereignty and reclaiming policy spaces in a world order rapidly in flux (Nem Singh 2019; Nem Singh and Ovadia 2018; Kim 2019). With the decline of neoliberalism comes not only heterodox approaches to economic development but also a search for alternative driving forces for structural transformation in their national economies. To be clear, China’s impact on developing countries is highly debated and its end result remaining tentative. For some countries Chinese finance and investments have served as an effective alternative to international financial institutions and created opportunities for articulating new development strategies. For others, growing Chinese presence has been perceived as a threat to the capacity of domestic firms (especially in traditional export manufacturing countries like Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico) to compete against an emerging global manufacturing powerhouse (Jepson 2020; Jenkins 2018; Gallagher 2016). In the context of BRI projects, host states have considered demanding more from China by diversifying investments towards non-resource and non-connectivity related sectors. Kazakhstan, for instance, has sought for Chinese support towards renewable energy, manufacturing and food processing – all of which are rooted on local demands for green energy and industrial development in the face of growing Chinese presence in the national economy (Laurelle 2018; Bitabarova 2018).
In this context, this international workshop seeks to examine the changing China-BRI state relations as ‘global China’ deepens its engagement with the Global South. Our project has four key objectives in mind:
- Mapping cross-country and cross-sectoral engagements between China and recipient countries in the BRI infrastructural projects, probing into similar and distinctive patterns of Chinese investment flows and policies across regions and sectors.
- Mapping and explaining power dynamics between China and host states, and how high politics are mediated by sub-national actors in the design and implementation of BRI within developing country contexts.
- Outline the role of industrial policy as a development strategy, the various factors explaining implementation of such policies, and their immediate outcomes.
- Evaluate the extent to which industrial strategies developed through the BRI have succeeded in promoting long-term structural transformation of national economies.
With these objectives, our approach is to contextualize China’s BRI in the broader theoretical debate of industrial policy and to examine how some states succeeded or failed to tap into the development opportunities brought forth by the growing presence of China in the world. Specifically, we will explore the domestic and transnational factors as well as the structural and idiosyncratic explanations for the varying capacity of BRI recipient states to negotiate for a set of desirable development trajectories. The novelty of our approach is that we intend to make explicit comparisons across Central Asia, Africa and Southeast Asia in both Silk and Maritime Roads. We recognize the tensions between centralized approaches towards the BRI from China and the messy and complex dynamics due to domestic politics from engaging countries. Drawing from established tradition in recent BRI scholarship, we will adopt the two-step framework to investigate the state-level and sub-national mechanisms. First, according to the asymmetry theory (Arreguín-Toft 2005; Womack 2016), we hypothesize that China’s deterministic efforts in its BRI has tipped the state-to-state power dynamics with the engaging countries, and unintentionally, may have offered the engaging countries greater leverage to punch above its weight. In the course of state-to-state negotiation, these countries also assume more risks to engage in a wider range of activities with China. Second, social conflict theory assumes that sub-national activities have profoundly shaped the state-led development agendas (Carroll and Sovacool 2010; Hameiri and Jones 2015). The consequences of such local manoeuvres depend on the constituents of the related institutional regime, the development legacy of different industrial sectors, the ideational value, and the capacity of the agents. As a result, while some BRI projects have opened up new opportunities for industrial development in the host countries, others exacerbated regional animosities and enhance disparities. Specifically, we intend to seek patterns across the range of cases as the vaguely defined BRI continues to adapt to the changing realities, and then, to explain the asymmetric state power dynamics between China and the engaging countries, as well as the sub-national manoeuvres among industrial policymakers and stakeholders.
To put cogently, we wish to examine how foreign policies around BRI that signal geopolitical and geo-economic asymmetries of power between China and engaging states are mutually co-evolving with the pull and push factors influencing the political economy of industrial development. By considering the international-domestic nexus and the geostrategic-political economy connections of the BRI, the proposed project promises to map and explain the immediate—and possible long-term—outcomes of Chinese grand strategy coalescing around the BRI.
This workshop calls for research papers about the engaging mechanisms and outcomes across the whole set of countries and sectors drawn into the BRI project. We specifically encourage the following papers:
- Conceptual and methodological papers focused on how to innovatively rethink mainstream perspectives on the BRI and the politics of China-BRI recipient countries;
- Conceptual papers emphasizing tensions and processes on the interface between centralization and ‘de-centring’ approaches to the politics of negotiating and implementing BRI projects;
- Empirical papers looking at explicit international comparisons on countries and intra-regional dynamics related to the BRI process;
- Conceptually-driven papers examining the evolving relationships between China (national and subnational actors) and sub-national/local actors in the BRI recipient countries;
- Empirically rich analysis of sectors as a focal point of analysis across regions or countries, such as industries and infrastructure projects related to transport, logistics, agricultural processing, energy, mining and resource production; and
- Multi-level game approaches to cooperation and economic decision-making to illuminate how country leaders and industrial policymakers are engaged with Chinese firms or policy elites in negotiating and planning for the much-needed industrial infrastructure under China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Based on the workshop presentation and discussion, we plan to put together a special issue proposal for inter-disciplinary journals, such as Development and Change, Economy and Society, Journal of Development Studies, and Review of International Political Economy. The workshop will also serve as an initial step to establish an international network focussed on strengthening collaboration among European, African, and Asian scholars working on the BRI. We anticipate that the meeting will offer a platform for further research activities, seminars, and collaborative grant applications.
Instructions for Submission
We anticipate that the workshop will take place both online and offline (for local participants in Hong Kong only) as a public health measure in lieu of corona virus. We will revisit the possibility of moving this into a two-day workshop depending on the appropriate travel advisory advice.
If you are interested in participating in the workshop and the special issue, please write a 400 word abstract and submit to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The following deadlines will be observed: November 30, 2020 for abstract submission and March 30, 2021 for a 6,000-word draft of the paper. We will provide guidance and individual advice as regards the fit of the paper and we will notify accepted abstracts by December 15, 2020.
About the Convenors
Linda Yin-nor Tjia is an Assistant Professor of Development Studies at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. She has published on China’s domestic transport and logistics development, as well as the political economy of China’s overseas infrastructural and industrial projects. Recently she has acquired the Sumitomo Foundation Grant (2020-2022) to investigate the high-speed rail rivals between China and Japan; and the Hong Kong Research Grants Council Early Career Scheme (2021-2024) to study China’s industrial projects in Kazakhstan.
Jewellord Nem Singh is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. He has published widely on the political economy of industrial development, natural resource governance and politics, and global governance and norm diffusion. He is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Starting Grant (2021-2026) worth €1.5 million entitled GRIP-ARM (Green Industrial Policy in the Age of Rare Metals: Transregional Comparison of Growth Strategies in Rare Earth Mining).
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