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Geopolitics Along the Belt and Road: Maps, Debts, and Digital Infrastructure

December 8, 2023 | 3:00PM - 5:00PM
Online & in-person
Asian Institute, Belt & Road, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

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Room 108N, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON, M5S 3K7
John Agnew on What Maps Hide: Sri Lanka and China's BRI
In some quarters, Sri Lanka has been a poster child for the sovereign indebtedness and geopolitical costs associated with joining China's BRI. In his talk, Agnew briefly situates Sri Lanka in the BRI and addresses some themes that have been important to discussions about the BRI's specific impacts: the global history of sovereign indebtedness, types of BRI projects and debt loads (open and "hidden"), aid versus loans, the BRI as not a Marshall Plan, the recent "fading" of the BRI, and how BRI projects figure in Sri Lanka's current sovereign debt crisis. Agnew's conclusion is that much of Sri Lanka's recent crisis is down to its increased reliance since the 2008-9 economic crisis on bonds versus tax revenues rather than particularly to its BRI loan repayments. Other countries, such as Laos, Pakistan, and Zambia, to name just three, have more serious BRI-related indebtedness than does Sri Lanka. It is important, therefore, to disentangle the roots of specific debt imbroglios rather than ascribe them all to a single source. China's BRI is not the sole source of contemporary sovereign indebtedness across countries that have previously "enrolled" in it.
Thomas Narins on The Evolution of the Belt and Road Initiative: from Debt Burdens to Digital Geopolitics
The year 2023 marks the end of the first decade of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a China-led global infrastructure development effort in more than 150 countries and international organizations. This period has witnessed a noticeable shift in emphasis from high-value, large-scale, long-term infrastructure construction projects toward less expensive, small-scale, rapid-implementation digital infrastructure. These latter projects are aimed at boosting economic growth by increasing participant countries’ information and communications capabilities. The evolution of the BRI toward digital economic connectivity not only has heightened geopolitical concerns surrounding China’s economic expansion beyond its borders, but also has forced a reconsideration of Chinese debt among BRI participants.
John Agnew is a Distinguished Professor of Geography at UCLA, where he has taught since 1996. Previously he taught at Syracuse University for twenty years.Originally from England, he is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He specializes in political geography  and is the author or co-author of "Hidden Geopolitics" (2022), "Mapping Populism" (2019), "Globalization and Sovereignty" (Second Edition, 2017), and "Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power" (2004). His publications specifically on China include the articles "Looking back to look forward: Chinese geopolitical narratives and China's past," Eurasian Geography and Economics (2012), "Missing from the map: Chinese exceptionalism, sovereignty regimes and the Belt Road Initiative," Geopolitics (2020) (with T. Narins), and the book chapter , "Putting China in the world: from universal theory to contextual theorizing," in C. Pan and E. Kovalski (eds.) China's Rise and Rethinking International Relations Theory (Bristol University Press, 2022).
Thomas Narins is an Associate Professor of Geography and Planning at the University at Albany (SUNY Albany). Dr. Narins is a political geographer focusing on the international political economy of China’s contemporary expansion beyond its borders.  He began his career using his Mandarin and Spanish language skills to analyze the political and economic impacts of Chinese trade and investment in Latin America. His current work engages with the critical geopolitics of Chinese-led investments and activities within the Belt and Road Initiative and the Digital Silk Road frameworks.
Sponsors: The Belt and Road in Global Perspective
Co-Sponsors: The Asian Insitute, and the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies
Asian Institute, Belt & Road, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies
Asian Institute


John Agnew

Distinguished Professor of Geography at UCLA

Thomas P. Narins

Associate Professor of Geography and Planning at the University at Albany