Negotiating China in Southeast Asia: (re)thinking development via infrastructure schemes


Single Panel


Session 9
Fri 11:00-12:30 Room 3.08



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China-backed infrastructure projects as a means of development are increasingly common throughout Southeast Asia and the global South, often constructed at great speed. From transport infrastructures to hydropower and urban spaces, these initiatives are promoted in official rhetoric as a means through which to raise living standards, provide economic opportunities, and contribute to mutual benefits via positive development. These sentiments are of new connectivities, coexistence, and prosperity in an inter-connected world orientating itself towards global China.

Scholarship on infrastructure recognises that such projects carry meaning beyond their physical structures (see amongst others: Gupta et al 2018, Elinoff 2016, High 2009). This is particularly important in projects that have a cross border dimension. Dalakoglou and Harvey (2012) note that transport infrastructure systems both negotiate and consolidate borders through promising new connectivity but also an awareness of boundaries through which they pass. In the case of China-backed infrastructure projects, these often serve as a proxy for how people regard China itself (Lampton et al 2020, Olivera et al 2020, Rowedder 2019). Infrastructure projects have multiple qualities, often provoking senses of anxiety along with opportunity as different actors experience both aspiration and alienation in these changing landscapes. The rhetoric of mutual benefits around development through infrastructure is worthy of critical scrutiny. Bright futures sound positive, but we suggest that not everyone shares equally in the fruits of such projects. Shared prosperity does not mean sharing equally even if the negative consequences of infrastructure schemes are couched in terms of the overall benefits of development.

This inter-disciplinary panel aims to consider China-backed infrastructures in Southeast Asia critically, reflect on their implications and questions of who will benefit and lose out from such projects. We ask what they mean to those who live and work at the forefront of these new infrastructures. How do people understand the arrival of these new infrastructures – often quite literally – in their lives? How do local people co-produce or modify these new infrastructures? Do they see themselves represented in the official rhetoric, alienated by it, or both? In thinking about these questions throughout Southeast Asian case studies, what do these offer infrastructure scholarship? Panellists from any discipline wishing to speak to any of these themes are very welcome to join this panel, with a view to contributing to a subsequent publication.