In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — a global development strategy involving infrastructure projects and associated financing throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. While the Chinese government has framed the plan as one promoting transnational connectivity, critics see it as part of a larger strategy for China to achieve global dominance. Rivers of Iron examines China’s effort to create an intercountry railway system connecting China and its seven Southeast Asian neighbors (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). The authors of the book seek to explain how domestic politics in these eight Asian nations shaped their varying external responses and behaviors. How does China wield power using infrastructure? Do smaller states have agency? How should we understand the role of infrastructure in broader development? Does industrial policy work? And crucially, how should competing global powers respond?
In this video, China-US Focus Editor-at-Large James Chau speaks with one of the authors, Johns Hopkins Professor David Lampton, and asks the author about how in particular the United States that sees China as a major geopolitical rival has responded to BRI.
What do you think is the central message of this book? And if there is a hope, as an author, what would you want your reader to extract from it?
I think it's probably carried that answered your question on the dedication page. And it said something to the effect, this book is dedicated to the proposition that the future is with those who build connectivity, and not those who build walls. And of course, that pertain to a lot of developments around the world where we seem to be building walls against each other rather than connectivity.
And so I see really, the modernization process highly dependent on the construction of connectivity. And once I think, joins the view of many Chinese leaders that I've talked to for writing this book, and many Southeast Asians as they both believe, you can't wait to be rich, and then build infrastructure. You need to build infrastructure to get rich. And so if we don't take risks and building it upfront, we're never going to get the economic dynamism and social dynamism that is required for a modernization. So I think, infrastructure, it's what I called the 'field of dreams' approach. Build it and they will come. So in that sense, China's leaders and Southeast Asian leaders and many lead of developing country leaders are on that same conceptual page.
Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese-led initiative, but it includes whole swathes of countries, I think, well over 90 at the last count. What if you're a member of a nation that's not participating in BRI?
I think another way is to sort of not be part of BRI, but realise BRI is going on, and seize opportunities that that creates. And so for instance, BRI in Southeast Asia, really mounts to developing north-south connectivity between China and the countries to its south. But there are many countries in Southeast Asia that also want to build East-West connectivity from India to Myanmar to Thailand, or Cambodia, to Vietnam. And there, the Japanese are much more interested in developing connectivity in that direction. And certainly the United States could more formally and already is participating with their Blue Dot program and so forth, in trying to build East-West connectivity. This is not necessarily aimed against China. And if you look at it from the big picture, China builds North-South connectivity of the West so to speak builds East-West connectivity, and they each promote the other, but don't necessarily require, partnership in BRI. So I think the future is uncertain. But I think that already the United States is beginning to think how it can participate.
A while back, you chose to invest your career and your life in helping to illuminate our understanding of the relationship between two great countries. What would you say to the young person, to the young David Lamptons today? Or the young potential David Lamptons?
Well, in a way, I think the young people today face more challenges and by word "challenge", I think that's what gives meaning to life. So when I use challenge, I don't necessarily mean negative. But my generation came along in the Cold War and really, our challenge was to establish communication between what was then 25% of the world's people China, and the United States and, and all our allies. That was a big job, but it was simple conceptually, I think now we've in effect created a relationship not just between two governments, but two peoples. And so what I would say is that young people, when governments are at loggerheads, the people have to find ways and build organizations, and build pathways of dialogue and discussion that allow and facilitate our government solving problems. So I would say, the need for cooperation, innovation and people in society taking the initiative is more essential now than when I came along.