Belt & Road in Global Perspective
A two lane highway winds through tall mountains with trees on either side of the road.
Commentary / Analysis, Conflict & security, South Asia, Belt & Road

Just add infrastructure? Ambivalence towards BRI in unremarkable places

Cartographic representations of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) tend to be similar: they depict the Indian Ocean, the political map of Africa and Eurasia, and stark lines—representing economic corridors—with one end anchored in China. These resolute strokes intrigue me in how they stretch effortlessly across vast spaces and past large swathes of humanity with little regard for borders, terrain, or local political economy. The corridors are meant to pave the way for new infrastructure, long seen as the missing ingredient by cash-strapped regimes in the global South, as well as many in the global North.

In Pakistan, where I presently live and work, rarely a day goes by when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—one of the six economic corridors under BRI, and frequently described as its flagship project—is not being extolled as a “game changer” by people in power, typically consisting of the civilian leadership, constituent politicians, the military, or mainstream Islamist parties. Behind this conviction is a notion that has been elevated to an article of faith, namely, that new infrastructure will allow Pakistan to realize its potential for economic growth. Put simply, the vision for global connectivity and shared prosperity that is being promoted by Beijing is actively contoured and amplified by powerful decision-makers in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, this credo rests on yet another tenet that has been extolled since the 1960s: connectivity is the key to economic growth. Connectivity is framed both as national connectivity, bringing distant regions within Pakistan into the ambit of a homogenizing polity, and regional connectivity, in which Pakistan would finally benefit from the geographic serendipity that placed it at the crossroads of Afghanistan, Central Asia, China, Iran, India, and the Persian Gulf states. Thus, for Pakistan’s ruling clique—a mashup of civilians, technocrats, and soldiers—the economic corridor resurrects the age-old promise of connectivity. The future, the country is assured, is bright.

In the meantime, on the murky margins where state and private interests fuse, there is a group that is already profiting: land speculators and property developers. In Gwadar, in southwestern Baluchistan province, Karachi-based property developers have been capturing and selling off large tracts of land (this process intensified after 2013, when China acquired rights to the deep sea port at Gwadar). The people who stand to lose, of course, are the local villagers and fisherfolk who are unable to assert ownership rights. A similar process could soon be underway in low-income neighborhoods in Karachi, and the banks of the Ravi river outside Lahore. Here too, Pakistani leadership has been attempting to marry their development imaginaries—computer-generated images of skyscrapers abound—with economic corridor investment. For land speculators and property developers, such proposals for development can trigger a bonanza, and it matters little that many of these proposed projects are not officially part of China’s investment portfolio in Pakistan.

Amidst the churn of economic corridor development and elite capture there is a basic question that has long intrigued me: how do these planning schemas appear on the ground? In border markets and fishing villages, or low-income urban neighborhoods and agricultural communities? I consider these unremarkable places, not because they are ordinary, but because until now they have been peripheral, or in some cases irrelevant, to global or regional capital flows. Now, suddenly, these unremarkable places find themselves at the centre of magnificent development imaginaries fuelled by the planning of new economic corridors.

The current development imaginaries have limited traction on the ground; in fact, in conversations with people in wayside locales, I see ambivalence about the type of development that is associated with the proposed infrastructure. First, the new infrastructure is often described as bypassing people and places. Second, the people I speak with remind me that development is meaningful only when it empowers individual or community wellbeing. This could be through access to commons; reversal of environmental degradation; autonomy over habitat, mobility, and vocation; and provision of public goods such as schools, hospitals, or metaled roads. New infrastructure under BRI—and the promise of connectivity—does not intrinsically address these fundamental deficiencies. Although the possible exception may be roads, under BRI the roads tend to be motorways that bypass local communities, rather than the feeder roads to and from villages.

Border markets without border trade

A black and white image of a small market made up of small single-level shops.
Figure 1: Afiyatabad, a market near the Pakistan-China border, in the Karakoram mountains. While property prices have skyrocketed in recent years, many of the shops remain unoccupied, a reflection of limited local trade (photo by author).

Let me offer two examples to illustrate my point. First, consider Afiyatabad, a border market in the Karakoram mountains in the north, where Pakistan shares a land border with China, crossable via the Karakoram Highway. Since the 1980s, a border trading agreement has allowed residents to personally import small quantities of goods from China. Afiyatabad was never a busy market, but as a place where small traders sell Chinese goods, it is a gauge for independent trading and local, cross-border mobility. Since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor came into operation, Afiyatabad can be said to be on the economic corridor.

In conversations I had prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, shopkeepers described how bazaar trade declined after the introduction of BRI. This was because of new tariffs which made border trade unviable for local small traders, who were not incorporated into the planning of the new projects. Simultaneously, the number of container trucks entering Pakistan from China has increased. But these head towards the nearby dry port—bypassing local merchants—and from the dry port, move down-country. “The big cargo just rolls past us,” was how a long-term acquaintance of mine, who runs a small eatery put it in 2017. The containers carry construction materials, heavy machinery or large consignments of consumer goods for distant urban markets. The increase in cross-border flows after the introduction of BRI is evident, but the benefit to local communities is unclear. This is a form of infrastructure bypass. The view from Afiyatabad makes BRI appear nodal, in that capital moves between clearly defined points: these could be the “pivot cities” of the Belt and Road, special economic zones, or sites where large-scale projects are underway.

Imaginary cities for a parched river delta

A black and white photo of a group of men fishing in a small boat.
Figure 2: For twenty-five years, Pakistani governments have planned a futuristic port city in the Indus delta, most recently attempting to tack such plans onto economic corridor development. But the needs of local people are more basic: water, an end to environmental degradation, and gainful employment (photo by author).

My second example is from the Indus delta in southern Pakistan. Here, the mighty Indus river is supposed to reach the Arabian Sea—supposed to because most years, there is no water in the final stretches of the river, a result of upstream canal and dam construction since the late nineteenth century.

The Indus delta is a desolate land: encroached by the sea, covered in salt flats, bone dry, a slow-motion natural disaster a century in the making. For decades, people have been forced to migrate out of the delta, which had once supported agriculture. Three hundred thousand people remain, laboring in an unregulated fishing industry which leaves them indebted to creditors, or tending small herds of goats and eking out subsistence from the land. Since 1995, successive governments in Pakistan have proposed building a port city in the Indus delta which would rival Dubai or Shenzhen. Most recently, local politicians have tried to tack plans for port city development in the Indus delta onto the BRI investment portfolio. But people of the Indus delta remain ambivalent about such plans. For them, the lack of potable water is the most pressing issue; currently humans and livestock drink from the same stagnant pools. Many scorn such talk of a new coastal city, which they say will displace those people who still remain.

In conclusion, let me acknowledge that there are limits to how much we can generalize from examples from one country. But what these reveal, I believe, is the importance of scaling down and moving into the map; this is essential for those of us trying to understand BRI or Global China, both burgeoning fields of inquiry. As this short contribution illustrates—and this, I am sure, is true for all countries—the Belt and Road Initiative will be contoured by local contexts. Ultimately, it is local context and local political economy that determines what new infrastructure and connectivity will add. This much people on the ground already know. Adding infrastructure is the easy part; whether that infrastructure brings about meaningful change for the people along the Belt and Road is where the ambivalence lies.