Belt & Road in Global Perspective
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Commentary / Analysis, Economy & prosperity, Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Belt & Road

Excavating BRI futures

Spanning over 140 countries, the Belt and Road Initiative has a global scope. As a vision of development that centers on the proliferation of logistical corridors, it foresees a worldly technoscape whereby seamless flows of commodities, capital, people and data constitute the central resource for the sustenance of future lifeworlds. Yet, alongside these borderless horizons of things in motion, the BRI has also become the repository of other ways of acting on the future and negotiating infrastructural pasts. Making sense of how infrastructural presents relate to different times has occupied a large part of my field research in and around large logistics infrastructures in the Republic of Georgia, convincing me of the centrality of these temporalities to an analysis of the BRI.

Timothy Mitchell (2020) aptly notes that infrastructures work on time and, crucially, they do so in ways that are not obvious, even when looked at from a critical perspective. The proponents of logistical seamlessness and its critics alike seem to agree on the ability of transit infrastructures of different kinds to foster what David Harvey (1989) has called “space-time compression,” yet Mitchell (ibid) asks, “what if instead they had a different relationship to time? What if large infrastructures were, for instance, apparatuses of delay, rather than acceleration?” Or, I add, what if they could speak simultaneously to different and contrasting ideas of the future? So that pegged onto the promise of deterritorialised flows, one could detect much more locally, or even nationally-bound, promises of prosperity? Indeed attention to these different temporal dislocations might be crucial to understand what kinds of lifeworlds are materialised through large infrastructures. Throughout this blog contribution, I point to three separate yet intertwined future-scapes that I observed over the course of my fieldwork during the construction and subsequent demise of one of the many hubs expected to compose the New Silk Road: the Anaklia Deep Sea Port in West Georgia.


On 28 and 29 November 2017, I attended the Tbilisi Belt and Road Forum. This meeting, which followed one held in Beijing in May of the same year, showcased the Republic of Georgia’s commitment to establish itself as a key node in the development of the “Belt and Road Initiative”(BRI) [1] and the logistical corridors that will animate this project. Beside its geopolitical significance, this event also marked the beginning of my fieldwork researching the “logistics revolution” that Georgia was undergoing. Across the messy pages of the thick notebook I filled during the course of the Forum, I repeatedly drew arrows between the words “logistics” and “the future”. Today, several years, and, indeed, several Belt and Road Forums after, the future that was forecasted there remains relevant for studying the complexities involved in the making of the New Silk Road.

In retrospect, from the standpoint of my completed fieldwork, this event appears as a space where people had congregated not only in the name of the future but also, and crucially, to give the future a name. This was a performative event that positioned infrastructure at the centre of political, social and economic development in Georgia, domestically as well as internationally. Thereby, the BRI was casted at once as an epochal break from previous developmental framings and a gateway to future prosperity. The Forum was framed simultaneously as a point of departure – towards logistical development, but equally a departure from previous developmental framings – and of arrival, celebrating the discovery and naming of the future itself. Significantly what permeated the Forum was a sense of futurism. Futurism, according to Pels, “may be defined as the classification of an epoch in terms of a prediction of progress– and by an assumption of newness” (Pels et al 2015: 782). Indeed, the futuristic promise of logistics in Georgia is easily placed next to the modernist futurism(s) that have preceded it – even the ones subscribing to opposing modes of production.  We just need to think about how, almost a hundred years before the Tbilisi BRI Forum, Lenin had similarly given the future an – equally infrastructural – name by saying that “Communism is power to the Soviets plus the electrification of the whole country”. Despite being attached to a very different socio-economic rationale and sustaining a national political project openly opposed to the Soviet past, the infrastructural futurism that propelled state socialism is, at least in part, reactivated by current attempts to transform Georgia into a logistical corridor.


In many ways, the advent of the BRI offered a new framework under which the uncertainties, failures and geopolitical tensions of the past decades could be pacified, at least momentarily. Across formerly Soviet countries, an impressive array of infrastructural projects has been unleashed since the first announcement of Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. These include some of the most expansive and visible developments to date, including “the largest dry port in the world” built in Khorgos, Kazakhstan. Observing these different projects closely, like many scholars have started to do, what emerges is that these infrastructures of the future come into existence as accretions of multiple pasts (Anand 2015). Anand has suggested that “infrastructures accrete. They gather and crumble incrementally and slowly, over time, through labor that is at once ideological and material” (2015:1).

Across the corridors that seek to bind together the BRI, Soviet-era infrastructures acquire material accretions through new technological feats. Going even further into the past, the routes violently drawn up by 19th century capitalists who sought to extract the valuable resources of Central Asia and the Caucasus still underwrite present networks. These however are not static, as they acquire new immaterial accretions associated with finance and the law. Thinking of present infrastructures as the accretions of a variety of histories “draws our attention to how these are not smooth surfaces that perform as planned; instead they are flaky, falling apart forms that constantly demand maintenance” (Anand 2015:1). Amidst triumphalist narratives and the frightening geopolitical scaremongering that seems to surround much of current BRI discourse, we must remember that failure is instead central to global capitalism. To this end, attention to infrastructural accretions is important as it shows that rather than an aberration, failure is at once ubiquitous and integral to the making of global logistics. The failure of the Anaklia Port project that I have documented throughout my fieldwork is not exceptional. Rather, in some ways, as Chua (2018) has shown in her account of the global shipping industry, global maritime trade is so infused by failure that its likelihood provides a perverse kick for the companies locked in ever more excessive speculations.


The ongoing covid-19 pandemic has revealed the inevitability of major disruption to projected futures, highlighting the disastrous impact that large projects of accumulation have already had on the precarious environments in which we live. The effects of the current pandemic on logistical connections across the globe are yet to be fully assessed; however large infrastructural projects which were due to come to fruition are already starting to fail [2]. Infrastructures come into existence through complex financial arrangements between states, donor institutions such as large international banks, private investors and corporate actors. In order to attract shareholders’ capital in the present, developers wage their projects’ material and political durability as a guarantee of a future of secure profits (see Mitchell 2020; Abourahme and Salamanca 2016). In this way, even before being built, as Mitchell argues, infrastructures act as time-machines of sorts, able to bring the future into the present in the form of profits. Indeed, at the other end of this time travel is a form of capture, whereby the future users of infrastructures are taxed to sustain the longevity of shareholders’ profit. It is this double temporal move that Mitchell calls capitalisation. Already in their planning thus, infrastructures’ ability to last into the future is made to work to secure a present of profits.

Labour in time

Casting my mind back to the 2017 Belt and Road Forum, it is apparent how the smooth horizon of progress this event sought to cast over Georgia has already cracked. Less than four years have passed and many of the projects presented during the Forum have become enveloped by crises of different kinds: the deep sea port of Anaklia has been halted due to a political and financial crisis, the impacts of which have been felt across all corners of Georgian society; the spatial plan unleashed by former prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili with the aim to facilitate the logistification of the country has never come into fruition; while the fate of long awaited Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway has once more been put into question by the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Not just in Georgia, but across the thousands of kilometers covered by the New Silk Road, disruption, acceleration, failure, extensification, promise and disillusion are coexisting and overlapping. A downstream inquiry into the Belt and Road must speak to these myriad of situations that make up the BRI. Detecting this multiplicity, however should not be a goal in itself. Rather it should lead us to ask how and through whose labour the visions of smooth logistical connectivity, predictable futures and pacified pasts are sustained and reproduced amidst actually existing heterogeneity, and with what consequences. The uses, intersections and dislocations of these different forms of labour should be a central focus of critical inquiries of the New Silk Road.

[1] At the time it was still known as “One Belt and Road”

[2] At the same time, recent reports on the impact of the pandemic on global shipping show that the major disruption caused by the crisis is already proving to be profitable for some infrastructural actors such as freight companies who are benefiting from the price hikes on their services due to the increase demands for cheap goods, by the millions of people enduring lockdowns in Europe and the U.S, mostly coming from manufacturing sites across the BRI (

Abourahme, N., Jabary Salamanca, O. (2016) “Thinking Against the Sovereignty of The Concept”. City, 20(5), 737-754.

Anand, N. (2015) “Accretion”. In H. Appel, N. Anand, A. Gupta, (eds) “The Infrastructure Toolbox”, Cultural Anthropology Fieldsights, Available at [last access 22.01.2021]

Chua, C. (2018) “Indurable” Monstrosities”. FutureLand Stories From the Global Supply Chain, Available at [Accessed 05.02.2021].

Mitchell, T. (2020) Infrastructure Work On Time. E-Flux. [online] Available At Https://Www.E-Flux.Com/Architecture/New-Silk-Roads/312596/Infrastructures-Work-On-Time/ [Accessed 05.02.2021]