Belt & Road in Global Perspective
A futuristic Shanghai skyline is lit up in neon green and white against a dark sky and sea.
Commentary / Analysis, Climate change, energy & environment, East Asia, Belt & Road

Infrastructure as a planetary sculpture: The future of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Anthropocene

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a planetary set of future-oriented projects. Announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013 during visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, it calls for the development of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” (丝绸之路经济带) and a “Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road” (21世纪海上丝绸之路), which together comprise the “Belt and Road” (一带一路) Initiative. At the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in 2017, President Xi highlighted the BRI’s “Silk Road Spirit” as a vision of infrastructural development [1] that would bring prosperity to relatively poor countries across Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Meanwhile, he expressed a concern about how the BRI’s expansion would address the world’s economic, social and political challenges [2]. Just last year he emphasized the positive leadership role it would take in addressing global environmental and ecological crises [3].

Rather than assume that these narratives about the BRI simply represent or veil any given agenda on the part of the Chinese state, in this essay I engage in the thought experiment of envisioning this planetary infrastructure as a sculpture of futurity. A sculpture of futurity allows us “to see (what is) coming,” both to anticipate and to be surprised by the unexpected [4].  Thinking through this metaphor of a sculpture of futurity invites attention to the plasticity of the BRI as an infrastructure – including the future of the BRI, the sense of future that the BRI promises, and the future of knowledge about the BRI [5].

Emergent issues such as climate change, natural disasters, and species extinctions have produced anxieties about planetary futures that we cannot adequately visualize with existing tools (whether epistemological or practical) [6]. BRI projects will affect the trajectories of these planetary crises in ways that require scholars to think more expansively and creatively than existing epistemological frames allow [7]. Indeed, the BRI presents an opportunity for innovations in knowledge production at a critical moment, just as humans are being forced to acknowledge the extent to which we have disrupted delicate cycles of human and nonhuman life on the planet [8].

As early as 2009, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote:

“As the [global environmental] crisis gathered momentum in the last few years, I realized that all my readings in theories of globalization, Marxist analysis of capital, subaltern studies, and postcolonial criticism over the last twenty-five years, while enormously useful in studying globalization, had not really prepared me for making sense of this planetary conjuncture within which humanity finds itself today [9]."

As he put it, “[A]nthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history [10]". The sense of deep and interconnected ecological and epistemological crises at the center of the Anthropocene scholarship is shared among scholars in the humanities and sciences [11]. In philosophy, for example, the distinction between idealism and realism has been challenged as variations of speculative realism and new materialism have arrived on the scene [12].

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the life and death urgency of these theoretical questions.  The planetary scope of the pandemic challenges us to confront the problem of shifting human agency at the species scale [13]. A problem at this scale requires every human and every government on the planet to cooperate towards a solution. In the rollout of COVID-19 vaccination plans beginning in late 2020, the US, the UK, members of the European Union, and other rich countries have bought many of the doses supplied by the American drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. While working through the chaos of distributing vaccines at home, these countries have shown little regard for the rest of the world, especially developing and poorer countries, at least in these early stages of distribution. China is among a very small number of countries that is not only developing its own vaccines but also supplying them to developing and poorer countries such as those in Africa and Latin America. However, media sources in the West have tended to describe China’s efforts to distribute the vaccine as an enactment of “soft power,” driven by the impetus to advance Chinese hegemony [14].

“Soft power” diplomacy, however, is an insufficient tool for understanding what drives the BRI and its role in planetary problems such as the pandemic. At the planetary scale, we need to work together toward solutions that take seriously the interface between humankind and “nonhumankind” in the planetary age. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari point out, in the case of philosophy’s encounter with the earth (what they call “geophilosophy”), “[t]he creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist [15].” To paraphrase their words as we examine planetary issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the BRI, the creation of new concepts for the earth as a planet and for people who do not yet exist as a species demands that we develop new ways to think about the future.

The metaphor of the future as sculpture calls attention to the BRI’s plasticity, the ways it shifts shape to accommodate diverse human and nonhuman vitalities. We may refer to the BRI as a “planetary sculpture” (xinqiu diaosu星球雕塑), a concept inspired both by the discipline of sculpture and by studies of the Anthropocene. The basic idea of sculpture refers to the molding and shaping of a plastic material to express an idea. In the classic sense, Greek sculpture uses a form to express the participation of the human soul in the world, that is, participation in the Aristotelian sense of acting and acting out of the soul in the formation of the human self [16]. When we extend the classic idea of sculpture to the general concept of a plastic art, we can identify a broader field that includes various practices of plastic arts such as design, architecture, urban and regional planning. The essence of sculpture as a plastic art, or the plasticity of sculpture, is its technics of accepting and producing a form. In this vein, the BRI infrastructure can be understood as a plastic form of a structure, as a specific sculpture in the general sense of underlining its plastic technics.

Thinking of the BRI as a plastic planetary form, a malleable infrastructure shaped by human and nonhuman vitalities, allows us to envision the future of the BRI in the Anthropocene. As the BRI materializes in transcontinental railways and roads, international bridges, seaports, and internet networks, it is impossible to know what these developments will bring with them. Yet it is increasingly apparent that in order to participate in creating (rather than simply preserving) a habitable planet, the BRI will need to become plastic in such a way that it is capable of engaging diverse lifeforms, epistemes, cognitions, and intelligences [17]. It is through its plasticity that the BRI will have a future in the materialization of a habitable planet.

[1] The speech featured three tacitly interlocking arguments about the BRI’s scope, principles, and potential challenges (see “Full Text of President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum.” May 14, 2017. Accessed December 29, 2020). Andrew M. Carruthers refers to Silk Road Spirit as an “infrastructural imaginary” [“Intensity, Infrastructure, Aquatectonics.” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, Vol. 38, No. 5 (August 2020), pp. 820-825].

[2] Xi said: “In terms of reality, we find ourselves in a world fraught with challenges. Global growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and balanced, and the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed. Hotspots in some regions are causing instability and terrorism is rampant. Deficit in peace, development and governance poses a daunting challenge to mankind. This is the issue that has always been on my mind” (

[3] In September 2020, President Xi announced a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. This attention to the environment presents an opportunity to debate whether the country’s environmental standards can be implemented effectively in other countries. For example, as Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro point out, uses of digital technologies in the BRI may not entirely skip the “dirty phase of fossil fuel dependence that has characterized the West’s rise to globe dominance” due to the fact that “the infrastructure for digital technologies is costly from an environmental point of view, as its manufacture depends on rare-earth minerals that are toxic to extract” (China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020, pp. 138-139).

[4] The expression “to see (what is) coming” comes from Jacques Derrida. See his “Preface: A Time for Farewells: Heidegger (Read by) Hegel (Read by) Malabou” (Trans. Joseph D. Cohen) (In Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic. Trans. Lisabeth During. London: Routledge, 2005 [1996], pp. ix).

[5] Catherine Malabou discusses the link between plasticity and futurity in her The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic (Trans. Lisabeth During. London: Routledge, 2005 [1996]).

[6] See Bruno Latour and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Conflicts of Planetary Proportions: A Conversation” [Journal of the Philosophy of History, 14 (3), 2020, pp. 419-454] and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category” [Critical Inquiry, 46 (Autumn 2019), pp. 1-31].

[7] Examples of these epistemological frames include optical idealism (the reduction of the diverse bodily senses to the perceptive capacity of the eye), scientific materialism (the prioritization of physically measurable matter over invisible and inaccessible objects), and historical materialism (focusing on economic and political struggles about labor, work, and capital while ignoring the vitalities of materials and nonhumans).

[8] Consequently, we need to reframe such concepts as human agency, development, modernity, and globalization, which have historically been understood in anthropocentric terms (see for example, Paul Warde’s detailed study of an anthropocentric history of sustainability in Europe since the sixteenth century in his The Invention of Sustainability: Nature and Destiny, c. 1500-1870. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[9] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry, 35 (Winter 2009), p. 199.

[10] Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History” (p. 201). In addition to the collapsing distinction between natural history and cultural history, Anthropogenic explanations of climate change also challenges scholars in Asian Studies to rethink what constitutes the objects of inquiry in the Anthropocene. While some scholars address the complexity of rethinking Asia in the Anthropocene (Hannes Bergthaller, “Thoughts on Asia and the Anthropocene.” In The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay Between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age, edited by Gabriele Dürbeck and Philip Hüpkes. London: Taylor & Francis, 2020, pp. 77-90), others frame the Anthropocene in cultural terms. For example, Elizabeth Chatterjee’s study of electricity-related energy infrastructure in Asia shows different types of human agency in the Anthropocene. “Fossil capitalism” is a major feature of British industrialization and “settler colonialism” in places such as the Americas. In contrast, “fossil developmentalism” appears to characterize “the Asian Anthropocene” [“The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 79, No. 1 (February 2020), pp. 3–24]. Others suggest that understanding the relationship between Asia and the Anthropocene requires both a good understanding of Asia and related places and a critical reflection of the status of knowledge we are producing [see Ralph Litzinger and Fan Yang, “Eco-media Events in China: From Yellow Eco-peril to Media Materialism.” Environmental Humanities, Vol. 12, No. 1 (May 2020), pp. 1-22].

[11] A growing body of scholars have been addressing these crises through various concepts. To name a few, Donna J. Haraway’s tentacular thinking in the Chthulucene (Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), Bruno Latour’s “thing” public (“From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public.” In Making Things Public. Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005, pp. 14-41), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s planetarity (“The Planet: An Emergent Humanist Category”), Elizabeth Povinelli’s “geontology” and geontopower” (Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), Yuk Hui’s cosmotechnics (The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2016), Denise Ferreira da Silva’s “blackness” [“1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ – ∞ or ∞/∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value.” e-flux journal, # 79, February 2017], Jane Bennett’s vital materialism (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), and Hai Ren’s “cosmopublic” and “art intelligence” [“Assembling the Cosmopublic: Art Intelligence and Object-Oriented Citizenship.” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture, Vol.5 No. 1, March 6, 2020. Web: <>”].

[12] See Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of “optical idealism” in his Aesthetic Imperative: Writings on Art (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017) and Quentin Meillassoux’s critique of the distinction through the concept of correlationism in his After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (New York: Continuum, 2008). Graham Harman’s Speculative Realism: An Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018) offers a good review of variations of speculative realism. For new materialism, see the work of Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and Donna Haraway.

[13] For example, we need to rethink the Lockean notion of subjectivity that underpins the foundation of modern and contemporary norms of citizenship. We modern people, as Pierre Charborrier points out, live on two territories: not merely “the legal and political territory of the national state” but also “the ecological and economic territory defined by the space required to mobilize the goods that we consume” (“‘Where is Your Freedom Now?’ How the Moderns Became Ubiquitous.” In Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, MA: ZKM and The MIT Press, 2020, p. 77). The limitations of the Lockean notion of subjectivity are thus laid bare in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[14] For example, The New York Times reports that J. Stephen Morrison, director of the global health policy center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says: “The Chinese have been eager to get out in front, aware of the gap and the hoarding and pre-purchase of so many billions of doses by the Western governments that is leaving so many countries high and dry,” and “It will become a tool in their diplomatic alliances, and it will give them some measure of prestige and standing with countries that choose to make use of them” (Sui-Lee Wee and Ernesto Londoño, “A Second Chinese Coronavirus Vaccine Is Said to Be Effective.” January 7, 2021. Accessed January 7, 2021).

[15] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 [1991], p. 108.

[16] See Bernard Stiegler’s Symbolic Misery, Volume 2: The Catastrophe of the Sensible (London: Polity, 2015).

[17] These diverse epistemes, cognitions, and intelligences are pertinent to both life and nonlife forms. Yuk Hui’s work offers a good example of theorizing multiple diversities pertinent to life forms: “biodiversity,” “noodiversity,” and “technodiversity” (“For a Planetary Thinking.” e-flux journal, #114 (December 2020), PDF version, p. 05. Accessed January 4, 2021.)