Understanding China's BRI in Laos
Upon his visit to Laos in November 2017, Xi Jinping wrote in an open letter, published in English and Lao in Laotian mainstream media, that “there is a high degree of complementarity between China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the strategy of Laos to transform itself from a landlocked to a land-linked country.”
He further described the China-Laos Railway, the flagship of the BRI in Laos, as "(t)he transportation artillery that will drive the development of Laos (and that) is a dream coming true.”
These lines point to two central features of China’s BRI. One is its embracing of the “Chinese Dream”, already extended as China’s “Asia-Pacific Dream”; the second is, more importantly, its discursive power of scripting China’s geopolitical and economic interests in the rhetoric of its partners’ national development strategies.
As the land-linked strategy has been already advertised by the Laotian government for more than two decades, the BRI in Laos is, rather than breaking new ground, an intensified and accelerated continuation of already existing development strategies and policies.
Consequently, BRI’s flagship project, estimated at US$5.95 billion, of linking up Laos’ capital Vientiane with Kunming in China’s southwestern Yunnan province by rail, builds on long-established plans of integrating the region by multilateral actors.
First proposed at the 5th ASEAN Summit in 1995, the overall Singapore-Kunming Railway Link, now better known as “Pan-Asia Railway Network”, has been subsequently taken up by the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the Asia Development Bank (ADB). The latter once envisioned to connect all countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) through a comprehensive rail network by 2020.
It is thus the lens of continuity through which we can best understand the unfolding of BRI’s infrastructural push in Laos (and elsewhere). Without doubt, carrying passengers and cargo at maximum speeds of 160 km/h and 120 km/h respectively through northern Laos (provinces of Luang Namtha, Oudomxay, Luang Prabang and Vientiane), the China-Laos Railway will significantly change the physical, economic and social landscape of a country that has never seen any substantive railway infrastructure in its history.
Rapidly progressing construction work testifies to this. Started in late 2016 and already displaying highly sophisticated engineering by drilling through massive mountain ranges and spanning valleys and rivers by majestic bridges, there is little doubt that the railway will be operational by the end of 2021.
However, zooming in on the northern province of Luang Namtha, for example, where I have been regularly conducting ethnographic work on small-scale traders for the last five years, this unprecedented railway project is embedded in a longer history of rapid regional economic opening-up through projects of cross-border infrastructural connectivity.
The province’s direct borders with China and Myanmar have been complemented by the “Kunming-Bangkok Highway”, financed by Thailand, China and the ADB and officially opened in 2008. It significantly improved overland access to Thailand through its neighbouring Bokeo province, cutting the journey time between the markets of China and Thailand to only three hours—compared to several days in the past.
Since then, an increasing number of highly mobile newcomers, from diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, has been eager to experiment with this promisingly improved cross-border connectivity through trading a wide portfolio of Chinese and Thai goods, observable in the unceasing opening of small retail shops in and around old and new marketplaces.
That the latter are mostly backed by Chinese investment points to another continuity: the emergence of decidedly Chinese ecological, economic, social and cultural landscapes in northern Laos created by incoming Chinese money and people. It is no secret that the emerging, now BRI-backed, infrastructure by road and rail further links together several China-backed Special Economic Zones (SEZ), with the Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone on the China-Lao border as the BRI’s prime gateway in Laos.
Understanding these developments primarily as integration of Chinese capital circulations, local residents often remarked cynically that it would be only a matter of time until northern Laos would be part of southern China. However, this statement should be understood beyond the obvious lens of Laos’ eroding territorial sovereignty (often enough established by academic and journalistic accounts), as it sums up a more complex and contradictory combination of both scepticism and aspiration.
While lamenting over Chinese encroachment of the local economy with all its negative implications, many highlighted at the same time the numerous opportunities the Chinese market has to offer, not seldom gearing their livelihoods to the latter.
The multitude of local stories of entrepreneurial aspiration and failure, as well as existential fears (of losing out to the growing influx Chinese entrepreneurs or of losing one’s home because of enforced resettlement due to railway construction) is, all in all, reflective of post-Socialist Laos’ longer-lasting neoliberal developmental trajectory that amalgamates external (now increasingly Chinese) geopolitical ambitions, capital and investment strategies, and domestic elitist politics.
The concerning absence of strategising sustainable domestic (both national and local) development benefits of Chinese megaprojects on part of the Lao government is only a central feature and symptom of it, exacerbating the already widening socio-economic inequalities on the ground.
It is these locally embedded continuities through which we can fully understand the character and effects of China’s BRI in Laos (and elsewhere), importantly adding to analyses which otherwise focus largely on Chinese geo-economic and -political calculations and its dangerous repercussions on Laos’ indebtedness.
In other words, the BRI should not be understood one-sidedly as a powerful Chinese campaign operating in the empty space and passive frontier of a weak Lao state. On the contrary, its full unfolding is centrally mediated by the rationale of Laos’ bureaucratic state apparatus and taken up differently by the agency of an increasingly stratified society.
The writer is from the department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.