The Belt and Road Initiative: A New Era of Transcultural Networks?

Many contemporary ideas and projects on transcultural networks are often build on the grand myths and narratives of pathways—overland and maritime trade routes that connect people and places through commercial, social, religious, and knowledge transactions. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multilevel ambitious platform sponsored by the Chinese Government is a classic example of a modern state trying to revitalize an older history of trade routes and strategically use it to pave new networks. The BRI forum is advertised as collaborative partnership through which nation-states can expand beyond their boundaries and contribute and benefit from a global network through massive collaborative undertakings such as international ports of trans-shipments, transcontinental highways, railroads and cultural exchange projects. From enticing infrastructural blue-prints for the new global cities in Kazakhstan, to the establishment of mega dry ports in Central Asia to the construction of ports of transhipment in the Indian Ocean, and to the largest network of intercontinental road Along with infrastructural projects, China’s BRI is a massive undertaking facing various challenges in the imagination and implementation of this grand project. Aside from infrastructure building initiatives, the idea of a single large road and belt network is also promoted through popular culture such as beauty contests, artistic exchanges, musical concerts, sporting events, and festivals. In Central Asia, South Asia, and Africa, both cultural and infrastructural projects are being effectively designed to garner the support of the local governments and people. Thus, for example, we argue that it is possible to make intellectual comparisons between cities like Colombo, Durban, Jakarta, Mombasa, Gwadar, and Lagos that have been linked in the last few years through infrastructural development, port building activity, and heritage and tourism projects.

Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. Photo by Maria Danilovich.

The purpose of this research collective is to rigorously explore and discuss three core topics of study: 

First, we are interested in examining the processes behind the making of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is also known as One Road, One Belt and was formerly known as Silk Road. We want to discuss the subtle and active campaign measures undertaken to popularize the BRI forum through various avenues—socio-political campaigns, cultural projects, educational exchange programs, trade fairs, and digital media platforms.

Second, we want to explore the recent making and unmaking of political and cultural affiliations in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa through community development programs, diplomacy, and transcultural movement of migrant workers, students, traders, and others?

Third, we ask what are the “push and pull” effect of the BRI forum inside China and outside. Here we are not merely interested in concerns of security, commerce, and infrastructure, but we plan on discussing the impact on ecologies, the global migrant labor force, women and children, education, and the digital world.  

We hope to address: How the Chinese envisioned global corridor either reinforces  or disrupts existing Eurasian and Indian Ocean networks and mobilities? How are different nation-states, non-state actors, corporations, and local communities in Eurasia and Indian Ocean region addressing China’s initiative and what are the larger cultural, legal, political, and economic implication of this “grand idea” of a global connectivity? How does recent Africa-China, Central Asia–China, Eastern Europe -China interactions inform concepts and ideas of security, development, urbanism, and new global order? And finally, how are older histories of maritime and overland trade and cultural exchange being revitalized in the present to connect countries, ports, and people through heritage building projects and artistic and educational programs?

Written by:

Neelima Jeychandran (Postdoctoral Fellow, Penn State) & Maria Danilovich (IRES, Uppsala University)

Cover photo: Khudjand, Tajikistan. Photo by Maria Danilovich 

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