Belt & Road in Global Perspective
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Commentary / Analysis, Government & politics, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe & Eurasia, Belt & Road

Visualizing China's Belt and Road Initiative and the Politics of Mapping

1. Introduction

Maps have played a crucial representational role in the context of China's monumental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI entails the development of an expansive network of infrastructure projects including railways, roads, ports, and more across 139 countries. Maps serve as a vital tool in visualizing these interconnections and potential impacts they could have on trade and transportation corridors. Prominent examples of these mapping efforts include the 2018 Merics and the 2021 Leiden Asia Center renditions, which cover the BRI’s Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. More recent endeavors have incorporated larger datasets and interactive maps, such as CSIS’s Reconnecting Asia of 2020 or have focused on specific projects, such as the People’s Map of Global China.

Maps have in fact contributed to conceptualizing and making sense of the BRI as a global initiative that includes tens of thousands of projects. Especially given the global scope of the BRI, maps provide an easy and effective way to visualize complex information and provide useful tools to study the geopolitical and economic implications of the initiative. Moreover, by showing the countries and regions involved in the BRI, they help to convey the scale and reach of this project. Scholars such as Dennis Zues have probed the visual dimension of the BRI, positing that an in-depth exploration of the visual materials related to the BRI, including maps, can engender nuanced understandings of expansive political undertakings, and their symbolic constituents, and can further be employed in the study of the politics of infrastructure, its tangibility, and infrastructure-induced lifestyle alterations. Zues postulates that the BRI should be approached as a political "brand," necessitating an investigation into the ambiguity and relationality of images that construct it. He further argues that, while these images can be ambiguous, they render a fresh perspective on the narrative triggers of suspicion and the areas of this narrative that require countering by the authorities in their continued "re-branding" or promotion of the BRI. [1] The varied interpretations possible with diverse' imagery underline a broad spectrum of connotations regarding the BRI, ranging from dystopian narratives of exploitation and surveillance to visions of prosperity and extensive infrastructure.

This short piece explores the importance of mapping the BRI, highlighting both the significance and the constrains of maps in providing a deeper understanding of China’s global presence. It hence offers an overview of some efforts to map the BRI, a discussion of some of the limitations of these efforts, and an overview of some tools and methods through which this process can be improved.

2. BRI mapping efforts and their limitations

Since China launched the BRI in 2013 various attempts have been made to conceptualize the initiative and identify methods to study it.[2] Maps offer an extraordinary means to visualize space and data of the BRI, potentially exposing hidden relationships and presenting fresh viewpoints. In today’s hyper-visual culture, maps tell influential stories about global affairs signifying the extent and intensity of a country’s influence. Maps can aim to represent relationships between different nations, encompassing alliances, rivalries, dependencies, and neutral ties. They offer simplifications of complex geopolitical connections and their potential ramifications. They condense reality to make it comprehensible in a two-dimensional format (of various projections), reduce empirics to cartographic scales, and always select out nuances or variations. How do these aspects of mapping matter for the cartographic politics of the BRI?

There is not a singular official Chinese version. A key challenge in mapping the BRI lies in its representation, or rather, its lack of an official map. Despite the BRI being a signature foreign policy of Xi Jinping and a China-led initiative, no official map that encapsulates this initiative has been created by Beijing. China certainly possesses the means and instruments to monitor the initiative closely and create maps, yet it has chosen not to do so officially. The only map available in the BRI official website is the one of the Six economic corridors,[3] and given the “openness and inclusivity” of the cooperation initiative, the official website openly discourages its representation through maps.[4] The realm of critical cartography posits that geographical knowledge is intertwined with power; hence it is inherently political. [5] Maps do not merely represent; they construct knowledge, exert power, and can drive social change.[6]  John Pickles suggests that our focus should be on how maps have encoded subjects and constructed identities.[7] The design of a map can reveal its creator's bias in terms of the information included or excluded, how it is represented, or the map's orientation.[8] Thus, the absence of any official maps from China raises the question: Can the silent blank space also bear a political connotation?

As argued by Thomas P. Narins and John Agnew, the lack of an official BRI map might promote a “useful fuzziness” enabling China's capacity to craft a novel, undefined geopolitical identity.[9] Galen Murton's argument about the role of maps in transforming space into territory cartographically, making it a legible space to be ruled, may not align with China's official intentions.[10] Rather, unofficial maps of the BRI might reflect western apprehensions regarding the expansion of China's influence.[11] The BRI serves more as a potent slogan triggering the creation of maps and the ideation of the initiative. Its ambiguity allows for flexibility in the execution of projects under its banner. As suggested by Tim Oakes, the absence of an official BRI map serves as an invitation to “fill in the blanks.”[12]

BRI maps are imprecise and full of blank spaces. In the absence of official cartographic depictions, a multitude of unofficial maps have filled the void. These maps, however, often suffer from a lack of precision and a propensity to overlook critical projects and regions. Though cartography by its very nature requires a degree of selectivity, the absence of certain details in these unofficial maps extends beyond mere simplification and seems to selectively blur or omit information about pivotal geographic areas. Galen Murton, for example, has explored how Tibet and the Himalayan Region, areas of demonstrable importance to the BRI, are frequently rendered as blank spaces in unofficial BRI maps, which he attributes to strategic ignorance.[13] While in official maps one might anticipate governmental censorship of sensitive regions such as Tibet. Unofficial maps, too, often fail to adequately depict BRI projects, and places such as Nepal, are left off of maps despite the presence of BRI projects there.

Moreover, maps depict discrete points of activity without illustrating the connections between them. Most BRI maps tend to merely highlight select mega-infrastructure projects, instead of providing a comprehensive view.  Maps offer static depictions of specific moments, and they are unable to capture processes in flux. Moreover, projects that are ‘under-construction’ or ‘planned’ on a map, may not be realized and are likely to change scope as they unfold. The accuracy of a map hinges on the correctness, completeness, and timeliness of the underlying data. If the data is flawed, incomplete, or old, misleading representation result. Accessing reliable data remains a formidable challenge for those aiming to map the BRI.

The life around infrastructures is largely unaccounted for. Maps are incapable of representing cultural, social, or economic relations that constitute the 'infra' in infrastructure. Beyond maps, we need comprehensive examinations of the materiality of the built environment, its evolution, usage, and interlacing with political dynamics, historical contexts, and globalization. [14] BRI maps in most cases fail to reflect the real-life complexity and dynamics of infrastructures on the ground. They do not capture the potential impacts and transformations these infrastructures bring to local communities, the environment, and cultural heritage. Hence, to understand the full impact and implications of BRI, a more ground-level analysis is necessary, going beyond the representational constraints of maps and delving into the socio-economic and cultural complexities on the ground. Ethnographic studies can complement maps to help observers understand how the lived dynamics of community, environment, and heritage play out in the locations represented on BRI maps.

The BRI infrastructure network is co-shaped. The BRI takes its forms not as sole function of China’s actions, but rather as an interplay involving Chinese economic actors themselves, the host countries, and international society. Put another way, China's control over the initiative is not absolute. There are various elements driving the BRI.[15] Firstly, within China itself, the country does not operate as a monolithic entity and the exercise of state power is a co-constructive process. Noteworthy research by Min Ye and others elucidates a range of different domestic drivers and highlights their conflicting dynamics.[16] Secondly, the agency of the host countries is a crucial aspect that warrants consideration. The host countries are not merely passive participants, but active players in shaping the outcomes of BRI projects.[17] For instance, Hassan Karrar's discourse on how local contexts shape the development of BRI in Pakistan is particularly enlightening. His work elucidates the interplay of local and international forces in shaping the trajectory and outcomes of BRI projects.[18] Thirdly, the international environment exerts pressures on China to uphold standards and maintain its reputation. This relational aspect restricts China's projection of power and means its ambitions are seldom realized in their original forms.[19]

3. Toward better maps

Efforts to map the building and financing of the BRI’s many-faceted projects are improving in their comprehensiveness. The Mapping Global China Project ( started to aggregate datasets from multiple sources. It has the most inclusive dataset to date concerning China-financed projects, drawn from sources including the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Hong Kong, the Reconnecting Asia Project Database, AIDDATA GeoQuery, Boston University Global China Dataset, SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership), the Australian Strategic Policy/International Cyber Policy Center, and projects collected by NYU Shanghai. The map incorporates details including project locations, the names of development companies, the nature of the projects and main contractors, whenever such information is accessible. With the aid of Geographic Information System Mapping, each project is connected to satellite images of the area from both before (2014) and after (2019) project development, in both day and night views.

Maps are powerful tools for visualizing the breadth and depth of global China's activities, including the BRI. Global China is not a monolithic entity but a complicated, occasionally fragmented network of different actors with varied interests. China's global engagement is a nuanced endeavor, with projects emerging from intricate entanglements with local conditions, norms, environments, and economies.

Maps of the BRI enables specific visualizations, sometimes contributing to the projection of China’s power and in other cases debunking common misconceptions.  Although mapping provides a starting point for visualizing global China and the BRI, for fuller knowledge, maps need to be supplemented with other forms of research, including qualitative analysis. To understand the scope of the BRI, one must go beyond mapping and delve more deeply into the intricate details of specific projects, investigating maps and their political implications with ethnographic work and localized studies. Maps, no matter how comprehensive, are only one first critical step in developing understanding of the BRI and more broadly of global China.

[1] Dennis Zuev, “Visuality and Infrastructure: The Case of the Belt and Road Initiative,” in Paulo Afonso B. Duarte et al. The Palgrave Handbook of Globalization with Chinese Characteristics (Springer Nature, 2023), pp. 285-300; Dennis Zuev, “Visual Studies of Infrastructure: the case of the Belt and Road Initiative”, CL Brief (2022), Another important work on the role of images and maps in visualizing international relations is William A. Callahan, Sensible Politics. Visualizing International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2020).

[2] See for instance the Special Issue: BRI as Method in Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Volume 62, Issue 3 of 2021; Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) blues: Powering BRI research back on track to avoid choppy seas,” Journal of Chinese Political Science 26(1), (2021): 235– 255; James D. Sidaway et al. "Politics and spaces of China's Belt and Road Initiative," Environment and Planning C-Politics And Space 38(5), (2020): 795-802.

[3] Six Economic Corridors 六大经济走廊,

[4] "一带一路"倡议是重要的国际合作平台和重要的国际公共产品,欢迎所有志同道合的国家积极参与,国家范围并不设限。"一带一路"核心内涵是借助"丝绸之路"文化内涵打造的开放、包容的国际区域经济合作平台,中国政府从来没有对"一带一路"限定过范围,制作"一带一路"沿线国家名单、地图的做法并不值得提倡.” In “Q&A丨Where can I find the official "Belt and Road" map?” 问答丨官方“一带一路”地图在哪里能找到?,

[5] Jeremy W. Crampton & John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 4(1), (2015): 11–33.

[6] Denis Wood, Rethinking the power of maps (Guilford Press, 2010).

[7] John Pickles, A History of Spaces. Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (Routledge, 2004).

[8] Contemporary critiques of cartography, building upon the foundations laid by Wood’s The Power of Maps, provide a fresh perspective on maps as tools serving the interests of their creators and facilitating the rise of modern states. They also delve into the potential and constraints of counter-mapping practices today, including critical cartography, participatory GIS, and map art, such as Jeremy W. Crampton, Mapping: A critical introduction to cartography and GIS (John Wiley and Sons, 2010).

[9] Thomas P. Narins & John Agnew, “Missing from the Map: Chinese Exceptionalism, Sovereignty Regimes and the Belt Road Initiative,” Geopolitics, 25(4), (2020): 809-837.

[10]  According to the geographer Harley, "cartographers manufacture power". See John Brian Harley, The New Nature of Maps (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), cited in Galen Murton, "Power of blank spaces: A critical cartography of China's Belt and Road Initiative" Special Issue: BRI as Method Forum, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 62(3), (2021): 274-280, pp. 274-275.

[11] Ching Kwan Lee, The Specter of Global China. Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa (Chicago University Press, 2018).

[12] Tim Oakes, “The BRI as an Exercise in Infrastructural Thinking.” (2021),

[13] Galen Murton, "Power of blank spaces: A critical cartography of China's Belt and Road Initiative" Special Issue: BRI as Method Forum, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 62(3), (2021): 274-280.

[14] Peter Schweitzer et al. “Beyond wilderness: towards an anthropology of infrastructure and the built environment in the Russian North,” The Polar Journal, (2017) 7:1.

[15] Gustavo de L. T. Oliveira et al, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Views from the ground,” Political Geography, 82, (October 2020). They pivoted the analysis of the BRI from a top-down coherent strategy to a process that is relational, contested, and specific to particular locales.

[16] Min Ye, The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China: 1998–2018 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[17] See special volume in the journal World Development 2021, BRI: A New Development Paradigm in the Making? Unpacking China’s infrastructure cooperation along the Maritime Silk Road.

[18] See Karrar’s discussion of how local contexts are shaping BRI development in Pakistan. Hassan Karrar, "Just add infrastructure? Ambivalence towards BRI in unremarkable places” (2022),

[19] Tim Oakes discussed this relational aspect of power in terms of Foucault’s conception of the dispositive, where interactions between human and non-human elements is where power constitutes itself. Tim Oakes, “The Belt and Road as method: Geopolitics, technopolitics and power through an infrastructure lens,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 62(3), (2021): 281-285, p. 284.