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Green silk roads, partner state development, and environmental governance: Belt and road infrastructure on the Sino-East African frontier



China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reorienting global development. Few scholars, however, query relationships between green silk road discourse, BRI infrastructure, partner state development goals, and environmental governance. This article details the roots of green silk road discourse in efforts to environmentally engineer China's desert landscapes. Much like large-scale nature-based infrastructure projects in China, BRI infrastructure projects abroad precipitate a range of socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. Through juxtaposing terrestrial infrastructure development in Ethiopia with maritime infrastructure development in Djibouti, the article demonstrates how different types of BRI infrastructure projects shape environmental governance and advance the development agendas of partner countries. Sugar plantations, roads, railways, and energy infrastructure in Ethiopia further Ethiopian state development plans while transforming Indigenous people's relations to their land and livelihoods. In Djibouti, port infrastructure and military bases figure centrally in strategic rentiership for the Djiboutian state with ancillary effects on fisheries and international trade. The article illustrates how relative articulations between East African central government development interests, environmental governance, and infrastructure are mediated by varieties of Chinese capital. The comparative analysis disrupts simplistic narratives of "win-win" partnerships and "China as threat" to partner state autonomy.
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Green silk roads, partner state development,
and environmental governance: Belt and road
infrastructure on the Sino-East African frontier
Jesse Rodenbiker
To cite this article: Jesse Rodenbiker (2022): Green silk roads, partner state development, and
environmental governance: Belt and road infrastructure on the Sino-East African frontier, Critical
Asian Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14672715.2022.2150249
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Green silk roads, partner state development, and
environmental governance: Belt and road infrastructure on
the Sino-East African frontier
Jesse Rodenbiker
The Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contemporary China, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
Chinas Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reorienting global
development. Few scholars, however, query relationships
between green silk road discourse, BRI infrastructure, partner
state development goals, and environmental governance. This
article details the roots of green silk road discourse in eorts to
environmentally engineer Chinas desert landscapes. Much like
large-scale nature-based infrastructure projects in China, BRI
infrastructure projects abroad precipitate a range of
socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. Through
juxtaposing terrestrial infrastructure development in Ethiopia with
maritime infrastructure development in Djibouti, the article
demonstrates how dierent types of BRI infrastructure projects
shape environmental governance and advance the development
agendas of partner countries. Sugar plantations, roads, railways,
and energy infrastructure in Ethiopia further Ethiopian state
development plans while transforming Indigenous peoples
relations to their land and livelihoods. In Djibouti, port
infrastructure and military bases gure centrally in strategic
rentiership for the Djiboutian state with ancillary eects on
sheries and international trade. The article illustrates how
relative articulations between East African central government
development interests, environmental governance, and
infrastructure are mediated by varieties of Chinese capital. The
comparative analysis disrupts simplistic narratives of win-win
partnerships and China as threatto partner state autonomy.
Belt and road initiative;
environmental governance;
infrastructure; China; East
In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with world leaders to propose an international
coalition for green development he called the green silk road.
This was not the rst
time President Xi invoked the Silk Road to describe Chinas infrastructural programs
going global and forging new relationships with nature. In September 2013, he gave a
speech in Kazakhstan in which he outlined a new Silk Road to mobilize Chinas domestic
surplus capital, develop infrastructure in other sovereign states, and expand trade with
developing countries.
In 2015, this was articulated by the Chinese government as
© 2022 BCAS, Inc.
CONTACT Jesse Rodenbiker
Darby 2017.
One Belt, One Road(yidai, yilu) a unied collection of cross-continental terrestrial
land projects and a network of maritime trade routes and infrastructure projects,
which was branded in English as the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).
In 2017,
Chinas National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top government
economic planning body, announced three blue economic passagesconnecting Asia
with Africa and Oceania with Europe under the overarching banner of the BRI. The
main blue passage will link China, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and the Mediterranean.
The other two passages link Australia with the South Pacic and China with Europe
via the Arctic. Capital from Chinese banks and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was
promised to support infrastructural projects along these terrestrial and maritime routes.
Particularly since the 2010s, the Chinese government has promoted silk road narra-
tives in international diplomacy, which scholars have largely considered in relationship
to Sinocentric political and economic interests. Chinese state representatives couch the
BRI in the language of winwin collaborations, international cultural exchanges, and a
long-overdue resurgence of economic connectivity along the historic Silk Road. In
doing so, they also advance the strategic economic interests of the Chinese state. Flynt
Leverett and Bingbing Wu describe the new Silk Roadas Chinas signature foreign
policy initiative aimed at enhancing national interests in a multipolar world.
Winter argues that the BRI is central to the exercise of Chinas geocultural power, the
projection of its soft power through romanticized narratives of shared global prosperity.
These scholars consider the BRI from the perspective of what it does for the Chinese
In practice, however, the BRI operates less as a set of rm development policies than
as an investment agenda which is highly adaptive to local political economic contexts.
While politicians and journalists in the Global North portray the BRI as a threat to
partner state
autonomy and global economic order, Global South partner states have
welcomed Chinese investments and construction projects on their own terms.
the vantage of Global South countries, the Chinese governmentsexibility and willing-
ness to accept short-term economic losses for long-term access to emerging markets and
resources is a welcome change from Global North lending and business practices in
which capitalist prots and the promotion of liberal values have been the bottom
PRC investments, in contrast, are not predicated on the human rights track
record of partner countries or economic liberalization.
While much of the New Silk Road and BRI scholarship has focused one-sidedly on
Chinas political and economic interests,
relationships between BRI infrastructure pro-
jects, partner state development interests, and environmental governance remain under-
examined. Tim Oakes, advocating for thinking infrastructurally,has brought attention
For a chronological account of transitions in naming and renaming market-driven extensions of Chinas logistical and
infrastructure construction systems, see Rimmer 2018.
Styan 2020.
Winter 2019,1112.
Leverett and Bingbing, 2017.
Winter 2019,2021.
I use the term partner stateinstead of the more commonly used term host countrybecause hostconnotes a
general passivity not exhibited by BRI partnerships, which in reality are highly dynamic.
Lu 2021; Chiyemura, Gamino, and Zajontz 2022.
Lee 2017; Economy 2018.
Baik 2019; Flint and Zhu 2019.
to the ways that infrastructure projects operate as techno-political instruments of devel-
opment and modernization.
In this vein, infrastructure exhibits a dual ontology as
matter that enable(s) the movement of other matter.
Forms of infrastructure are
both a thing the material forms that allow for exchange across spaces and a relation
between things and people. In the former sense, infrastructure constitutes a complex
operational system that mobilizes objects and relations. As new types of infrastructure
are constructed, they facilitate a system of exchange for commodities, capital, people,
and relationships across space. BRI infrastructural partnerships operate, therefore, not
as a grand strategy emanating from Chinas central state, as often portrayed, but
instead as relational bundles of intertwined discourses, politics, and projects that some-
times align and are sometimes contradictory.
Many state and corporate actors are involved in BRI projects. Politically, Chinese state
and corporate actors, as well as partner government actors, rhetorically draw on the BRI
to support their own strategic aims. At times these aims align across actors. At other
times they do not. BRI infrastructure projects, regardless of political alliances, tend to
operate as a spatial x for moving Chinas surplus capital and industrial capacity into
global markets.
In this regard, the Chinese state conveys a homogenous narrative of
global benevolence through the BRI, which tends to obscure partner state dynamisms.
Despite exhibiting common features, BRI projects are not monolithic. Rather, they are
an amalgam of diuse construction projects that are relevant not only to the Chinese gov-
ernments political and economic interests but contribute to a range of partner state
In few places is this more clearly the case than East Africa.
In 2020, trade between China and the African continent was US$ 254 billion, more
than four times that of USAfrica trade (US$ 58.4 billion).
Moreover, between 2007
and 2020, Exim Bank of China and China Development Bank invested US$ eight
billion more in Sub-Saharan Africa than the top eight other lenders combined, including
the World Bank.
More specically in East Africa, China is a signicant trading partner
and foreign infrastructural builder. Chinese companies account for 54.7 percent of all
foreign-country construction in East Africa.
Between 2008 and 2019, Chinese banks
provided 172 loans to East African countries totaling US$ 31.9 billion to support at
least 144 infrastructural projects.
In this paper, I compare Chinas infrastructural projects in Ethiopia and Djibouti
because, while these countries are nearly identical in terms of development capacity as
dened by the Human Development Index (HDI), their national development agendas
dier. While the Ethiopian government uses BRI investments to support road building,
energy infrastructure, railways, and state-owned agricultural projects, the Djibouti
government primarily draws on BRI investments to support shipping, port
Oakes 2019.
Larkin 2013, 329.
Oliveira et al. 2020,1.
Summers 2016.
Hillman 2020.
General Administration of Customs of the Peoples Republic of China 2020; Vaidyanathan 2022.
Lee and Gonzalez 2022.
Vaidyanathan 2019, 111.
Boston University Global Development Policy Center 2022. East Africa, for the purpose of these gures, includes the
following countries: Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Somalia, and Uganda.
infrastructure, and a free trade zone. These two cases illustrate how similarly positioned
states, in terms of developmental capacity and geographic proximity, operationalize BRI
infrastructure to pursue distinct development agendas with starkly dierent social, econ-
omic, and environmental outcomes. In both cases, BRI infrastructure projects facilitate
partner state developmental interests. Comparing these two cases, however, illustrates
how the relative articulations between East African central state development interests,
environmental governance, and infrastructure construction are mediated by varieties
of Chinese capital.
While Chinese investments abroad are often portrayed as monolithic, Ching Kwan
Lee, writing in the context of Zambian copper mining, has illustrated how the sources
of Chinese capital are in fact incredibly diverse. These range from the central government
and provincial governments to private Chinese corporations and small-scale Chinese
entrepreneurs. Moreover, Lee details how Chinese central state and provincial capital
tend to operate dierently from global private capital, which tends to operate simply
according to prot-making logic.
Chinese capital investments, in contrast, tend to be
focused on establishing and maintaining footholds in resource-rich regions, even
when drops in commodity prices dash short-term prot ratios. Central state and provin-
cial-level SOEs, among the most capital-rich forces underlying the BRI, rather than
simply maximizing prot, aim to expand market access, increase nancial returns, culti-
vate political inuence, and build resource security.
At times the aims of these SOEs
align with those of Chinas central state. At other times, they do not, or are even at
odds with national interests. Lee demonstrates that the specter of global China is
neither the imperialist hegemon feared and condemned by the West, nor the egalitarian
partner of win-win development trumpeted by Beijing.
Instead, BRI projects exhibit a
range of localized political and economic relationships and outcomes mediated by var-
ieties of Chinese capital and myriad infrastructural forms.
Yet, in the cases of terrestrial
and maritime BRI infrastructure presented below, infrastructure exhibits a dual ontology
as both material forms and relational means to advancing the national development
agendas of BRI partner countries.
Analogous to varieties of Chinese capital, East African states are not monoliths. Nor
are East African state actors passive in the face of Chinese investments. Recent scholar-
ship has highlighted the agency of East African state actors in negotiating the terms of
BRI infrastructural partnerships.
State interests inevitably vary across branches and
levels of government and the diverse state actors that constitute these. The interests
and goals of state institutions inevitably vary horizontally, across national-level minis-
tries, and vertically, between national and local authorities. In what follows, I draw on
ocial state development plans as lenses into national development agendas. National
development plans present a relatively homogenous view of BRI partner countries
central government interests. As such, the plans serve to represent Ethiopia and Djibou-
tis national political, economic, and developmental interests.
Lee 2017.
Lee 2022, 318.
Lee 2014, 63.
Evron 2019; Franceschini 2020.
Chiyemura, Gambino, Zajontz 2022.
In this context, BRI infrastructure projects are crucial to advancing the national devel-
opment interests of East African partner countries and reorienting environmental gov-
ernance. By environmental governance,I mean the mechanisms and processes
through which states and organizations inuence social actions and shape socio-environ-
mental outcomes.
National policies, state decision-making processes, and socio-
environmental campaigns are pertinent examples. BRI-funded infrastructure projects,
as they materialize, contribute to transforming local environmental governance.
Environmental governance, in the cases I analyze, encompasses mechanisms and pro-
cesses that reorient state-society and nature-society relations, including labor and
access to land- and sea-based resources. Moreover, the central states of BRI partner
countries set the conditions for political and economic exchanges and demand particular
types of infrastructure based on their strategic objectives. Varieties of Chinese capital
compete with one another and global capital to provide this infrastructure. Infrastructure
built in pursuit of East African national developmental agendas, such as ports, roads, rail-
ways, energy networks, and sugar plantations, is the medium through which new
environmental governance relations emerge.
My analysis questions simplistic narratives surrounding the BRI, both the Chinese
governments claim of universal win-win partnerships and European and American
claims that China, via the BRI, is a threat to partner state autonomy. Foregrounding
the national state interests of BRI partner countries reveals how BRI infrastructure pro-
jects facilitate state development goals and modernization, while reorienting social
relationships to natural resources. I argue that BRI infrastructure projects advance
partner statesdevelopment interests resulting in numerous outcomes ranging from
economic development, developmental capacity building, and reoriented environmental
governance. Furthermore, I argue that the relative articulations between national devel-
opment interests, environmental governance, and infrastructure are mediated by var-
ieties of Chinese capital.
The article is organized as follows. First, I trace the origins of green silk road discourse
through Chinas state-backed eorts to environmentally engineer desert landscapes.
These origins are signicant because they reveal tandem eorts by the Chinese state
and corporations to reframe the BRI as a green endeavor. Furthermore, domestic
environmental engineering eorts undergird the Green Silk Road private equity fund
(GSRF), a BRI investment fund consisting largely of contributions from private
Chinese companies that support international infrastructural development This fund,
initiated in 2015, initially consisted of US$ 4.8 billion from numerous private Chinese
companies including Elion Resource Group, China Oceanwide, and Chint Group. Its
aim is to support green energy development and ecological remediation.
the discourse of the green Silk Roadbolsters state and Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) narratives of environmentally conscious international development, BRI projects
in practice place environmental protection squarely on the shoulders of partner
countries, often resulting in outcomes that substantially transform local livelihoods
and environments.
In response, representatives from international NGOs including
Lemos and Agrawal 2006.
Meng 2015; Qin 2016.
Coenen et al. 2021; Teo et al. 2019; Liao 2022.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia, Greenpeace, and Rivers Without Boundaries have
jointly endeavored to reframe green silk road discourse in an eort to draw attention to
the detrimental socio-environmental impacts of BRI projects. In doing so, they call for
measures to safeguard society and nature along BRI routes. This discussion sheds light
on the struggle between governments, corporations, and civil society groups to frame
narratives and practices surrounding BRI infrastructure projects and investment. Next,
I examine BRI infrastructure projects in two East African countries, Ethiopia and Dji-
bouti. Drawing on in-situ interviews, foreign investment and aid datasets,
state development plans, and extant scholarship, I compare and contrast these cases to
highlight the role of infrastructure and varieties of Chinese capital in advancing national
development interests and reorienting environmental governance. In Ethiopia, terrestrial
BRI infrastructure projects, particularly roads, railways, energy grids, and factories, are
crucial to Ethiopian state-owned sugar plantationsproduction and gaining access to
the global sugar market. Chinese-built dams, in addition, have reoriented terrestrial ecol-
ogies by facilitating irrigation-based agriculture and in the process displacing Indigenous
agro-pastoralists. In contrast to what has occurred in Ethiopia, the case of Djibouti illus-
trates how maritime BRI infrastructure projects have facilitated the production of rent-
based prots for Djiboutian SOEs with ancillary eects on sheries and trade in the
Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. BRI infrastructure investments, as
these cases demonstrate, are not merely means to advance Chinas diverse state and
capital interests, as they are often portrayed. They also facilitate the development inter-
ests of East African national governments. In my conclusion, I examine the prospects of
the green BRI for Global South development and environmental governance.
Roots of the Green Silk Road and East African BRI routes
Since 1978, the Chinese government has been planting trees in Chinas northern and
western arid regions to conserve water, prevent desertication, and minimize sand
storms that plague cities like Beijing. Private corporations took on key roles from the
2000s onward as part of a campaign to develop Chinas western regions (xibu dakaifang).
Since the emergence of BRI discourse in 2013, desert greening projects have been
reframed by the Chinese state and corporations as part of building a green silk road.
A key example of this shift is found in the Chinese company Elion Resource Group (hen-
ceforth, Elion).
Elions involvement in desert land reclamation projects began in 1988 by planting
rows of trees as botanical windbreaks on 6,253 square kilometers of land in the Inner
Mongolia Autonomous Regions Kubuqi Desert. Since then, their eorts have expanded
to include desert areas in Bashang (Hebei Province), Liangzhou, Gulang, and Minqing
(Gansu Province), and the Taklamakan Desert in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous
Region. As part of their eorts, Elion planted over 85,000 hectares of licorice in these
areas because its thick root system holds sand in place and it doubles as a cash crop.
Licorice is a medicinal plant fetching roughly 450 RMB (US$ seventy-ve) per plant
each harvest. Elion produces approximately 3,000 tons of licorice root annually, which
AEI 2021; Custer et al. 2021; Dreher et al. 2022.
UNEP 2017, UNEP 2019.
sequesters approximately 14.5 million tons of carbon.
In addition to licorice, Elion
planted willow trees and little leaf pea shrub. Furthermore, they seeded clouds to
produce rain and used aircraft to seed new plants. Through these processes, Elion estab-
lished multiple desert plantations to stabilize sandy desert soils while deriving a
The economic and environmental value of such desert engineering projects
reects market-oriented approaches to sustainability.
In 2014, Elions desert engineering projects across Chinas northwest region were
selected to be part of the UN Environment Green Economy Pilot Initiative.
next year, the Green Silk Road Fund was established by a group of Chinese entrepre-
neurs, including Elion, keen to invest in BRI-aliated projects. This equity fund
includes a range of private rms, noted above, investing in ecological engineering
and solar energy. The expressed purpose of the Green Silk Road Fund is to green
the belt portions of the BRI domestically in central and western China, as well as to
invest in international infrastructure projects in central Asia and the Middle East.
By participating in this UN project and the Green Silk Road Fund, Elion ocials
were able to reframe their desert engineering eorts under the rubric of fostering
green silk road partnerships.A key aspect of this entailed planting 1.3 billion trees
in ecologically vulnerable desert areas along parts of the historic Silk Road northwest
of Xian.
After the establishment of the Green Silk Road Fund, state support for nature-based
solutions and mechanistic technologies for mitigating desertication expanded. Nature-
based solutions, also commonly called ecosystem-based adaptation, refers to the idea that
humans can engineer ecosystem relations to solve environmental and societal problems,
such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and desertication. This mechanistic approach
assumes that if appropriate scientic and technical interventions are applied and backed
by strong state apparatuses, desired outcomes will result in a predictable, mechanical
fashion. In the context of desert landscape engineering, this means securing sand to
the ground, growing vegetative cover, and transforming the desert into an economically
productive space.
Nature-based solutions and mechanistic approaches to nature typify the Chinese
states mode of stiving to overcome socio-environmental problems while promoting
economic growth. State-backed environmental programs not only facilitate corporate
prots and the framing of nature-based infrastructural interventions as key to green
development but also strengthen authoritarian governance.
Moreover, these eorts
have transformed diverse desert ecosystems into predominantly monocrop and limited
multi-crop plantation landscapes, thereby eecting local biodiversity.
Green Silk
Road rhetoric emerged within this context of market-oriented mechanistic approaches
to environmental engineering via large-scale nature-based infrastructural interventions.
UNEP 2017, 7, 20; Interview August 2021.
For example, the corporation has constructed 4,525 km
of such plantations just in Hangjin Barrier, Inner Mongolia
Autonomous Region. See UNEP 2015 26.
Wanner 2015.
UNEP 2017.
Meng 2015.
CEF 2014.
Li and Shapiro 2020; Rodenbiker 2020.
Zee 2022.
The Chinese governments approach to environmental governance emphasizes large-
scale nature-based interventions that strive to engineer desired outcomes over the con-
servationist and preservationist approaches common in the US context.
This has
resulted in widespread displacement in Chinas desert regions and limiting access to tra-
ditional grazing land, particularly for ethnic minority pastoralists like Hui, Mongol, and
Uyghurs. These eorts are legitimized by corporate and state narratives that frame local
peoples grazing practices as threatening to environmental conditions.
These infra-
structural eorts to transform desert landscapes reect the Xi administrations campaign
to build an ecological civilization(shengtai wenming jianshe) and foster ecological
Jerry Zee refers to the assemblage of engineered desert landscapes and
aerial ows of sand as material infrastructure that supports economic and political
Engineering desert infrastructure, according to Zee, intimately connects
local political economies with global ecologies. For members of the international civil
society community, the prospects of large-scale Chinese state-backed interventions in
earth systems and the proliferation of BRI investment and infrastructure abroad have
become sources of concern.
The shift in discourse to framing the new Silk Road campaign as a greenendeavor
has attracted the attention of international environmental NGOs. On November 18,
2016, NGO members and activists, including representatives from WWF Russia, Green-
peace Russia, Rivers Without Boundaries, and seventeen other NGOs from eleven
countries met in Moscow to discuss social and environmental policies and practices
associated with the BRI.
During their meetings, they penned the Green Silk Road
Initiative Declaration,which expresses concern over the fact that while the Chinese gov-
ernment oers substantial nancing for BRI projects, few safeguards are in place for
monitoring the socio-environmental eects of BRI infrastructural development.
declaration highlighted increased forced resettlement, suppression of local communities,
and environmental degradation linked to BRI infrastructure. It also noted the growing
inuence of the BRI internationally, despite a lack of mechanisms for international gov-
ernance of the initiative. The declaration called for heightened social engagement and
mechanisms for environmental oversight.
In 2017, the Chinese government, in an
indirect response, released a document entitled Guidance for Green Belt and Road
Development,which includes guidelines relevant to over half the demands outlined
in the initial Green Belt and Road Initiative Declaration. But since the tightening of
state controls over NGOs in China as well as in the Russian Federation, civil society
groups have transitioned to pursuing ad hoc campaigns with even larger numbers of
The Chinese government has yet to introduce policy safeguards for human rights or
corporate accountability measures for environmental degradation linked to BRI projects.
Zhu 2022; Rodenbiker 2022; Qi and Dauvergne 2022; Rodenbiker 2023.
Xun 2012. For a critique of this state rhetoric, see Davis 2016.
Rodenbiker 2021.
Zee 2020.
In addition to representatives from Russia, there were also participants from China, Mongolia, Belarus, the United States,
Denmark, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the United Kingdom, Cambodia, and countries in Latin America.
Interview, October 2020.
Green Silk Roads 2021
For example, see the Global Civil Society Call 2020.
Compliance with environmental regulations remains the responsibility of partner states.
However, it is not necessarily the case that those who hold political power in partner
states are not concerned with these issues, but rather that many partner states in the
Global South have a weak institutional capacity for environmental oversight. The con-
cerns raised in the Green Silk Road Initiative Declaration, although not without merit,
in eect portray China as a threat to partner states.
The juxtaposition of the Chinese state and corporate framings of the green silk road initiat-
ive with the Green Silk Road Initiative Declaration brings into sharp relief the struggle between
states, corporations, and civil society actors over meaning and narratives. The Chinese state
and corporations draw on green silk road rhetoric to project a win-winoutcome for econ-
omic development and nature. Conversely, international civil society groups aim to make the
green moniker meaningful in practice, rather than simply a mode of greenwashing, and
further demand that BRI infrastructure projects be socially responsible. These NGOs
portray the BRI as a potential threat to partner countries, communities, and the environment.
For these groups, to become green in a more meaningful sense the BRI requires international
governance mechanisms to safeguard environment impacts. The meaning and signicance of
the green silk road, therefore, are terrains of struggle between governments, corporations, and
international civil society actors. In contrast to these polarized representations of the BRI, the
realities of local meanings and practical implementation are complex. They vary across cases
and are largely contingent on the articulations between partner countriessocial, political, and
economic landscapes with types of Chinese capital.
In East Africa, political and economic relationships surrounding BRI infrastructure
development and national development policies are central to environmental govern-
ance. In some cases, socio-environmental transformations analogous to those in
Chinas desert landscapes are taking shape alongside BRI infrastructure projects. The
Ethiopian state, for instance, mirrors the Chinese governments rhetoric of bringing civi-
lization to society through development and its mechanistic approaches to environ-
mental governance. Chinese state banks and corporations oer substantial nancial
and construction support for infrastructure projects that are transforming Ethiopias ter-
restrial environment. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and hydroelectric
dams in the Omo region of Ethiopia are signicant examples. Their construction has
created irrigated crop land for Ethiopian state-owned sugar plantations. These infrastruc-
ture projects have resulted in signicant transformations of terrestrial ecologies and long-
standing Indigenous relationships to land. As discussed below, the lives and livelihoods
of the Omo Valleys Indigenous groups, particularly the Mursi, Suri, Kara, Nyangatom,
Bodi, Dasanech, and Kwegu, have been signicantly aected.
In Djibouti, Chinas maritime BRI infrastructure projects have supported Djiboutian
national development interests and recongured local trade and resource access in the
MENA region. The construction of Djiboutis seaport infrastructure, a Chinese naval
base, and a free trade zone key nodes along the Twenty-rst Century Maritime Belt
and Road additionally support the Chinese governments strategic military interests
and provide a haven for Chinas distant water shing (DWF) eets operating in the
MENA region. Below, I highlight in more detail how maritime BRI infrastructure pro-
jects and the presence of China Merchants Group a state-owned enterprise (SOE) oper-
ating under the control of Chinas Ministry of Transportation shape environmental
governance in and around Djiboutian waters. The following sections detail the relative
articulations between terrestrial and maritime BRI infrastructure, the development inter-
ests of BRI partner states, varieties of Chinese capital, and environmental governance.
BRI infrastructure in Ethiopia
In 2010, Ethiopias central government announced plans for the country to become
energy self-sucient and an energy supplier to neighboring countries. Hydropower
dams have been one of the most prominent forms of green BRI infrastructure in
Global South countries. These projects, however, have been criticized for not being eco-
logically sustainable, as their construction transforms rather than sustains environmental
Financing in excess of US$ two billion for hydropower dams in Ethiopia
has been provided by the Industrial-Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). This includes
a loan of US$ 420 million and a US$ 459 million contract with Dongfang Electrical Cor-
poration, a publicly traded SOE. Additional nancial support has come from China
Development Bank and Exim Bank.
Five out of Ethiopias six major hydroelectric dams, including the GERD, the largest
hydroelectric dam in Africa, have been constructed by Chinese rms. GERD is located in
northwest Ethiopia near the border with Sudan. Additionally, the Gilgel Gibe III dam in
Ethiopias southwest, which came online in 2015, is one among a series of dams that have
altered the ows of water in the Omo Valley and brought an end to annual ooding.
However, these have transformed the Omo Valleys terrestrial ecology and contributed
to signicant shifts in local relationships to land and livelihoods, as well as food
Hydroelectric dams have disrupted annual ood patterns of the Omo River, which
have been critical to agro-pastoral livelihoods for centuries.
The upstream damming
of the river, moreover, has been crucial to facilitating the irrigation of state-owned sugar-
cane plantations, which were established in places where agro-pastoralists had grazed
their animals for generations. These plantations were established by the state-owned
Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC) as part of the Kuraz Sugar Development Project
(KSDP) that began in 2011.
Financing for these sugar plantations has been provided
by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Development Bank, and
China Exim Bank. The Ethiopian government has framed KSDP as crucial to moderniz-
ing the domestic economy and improving agro-pastoral livelihoods. Initial state
plans projected that 175,000 hectares of sugar plantations which would produce an esti-
mated 700,000 jobs.
Central state plans promised jobs in sugar production for people
displaced from their agro-pastoral livelihoods and increased state revenues
through exporting sugarcane. According to former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, speak-
ing in 2011:
I assure the people of South Omo, especially the pastoralists In the coming ve years there
will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone. I
Harlan 2020; Liao 2022.
Carr 2017; Hodbod et al. 2019. The Omo Valley has historically supported over 500,000 Indigenous agro-pastoralists,
including the Dassanech, Nyangatom, Mursi, and Bodi among others.
Kramski 2016, Carr 2017.
Interview September 2020.
Kamski 2016.
promise you that, even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will
become an example of rapid development.
In statements such as this and in its development plans, the Ethiopian state mirrors
Chinas ecological civilization building rhetoric by declaring that modern agriculture
brought about through state infrastructural interventions brings civilization.
However, after dam construction, Indigenous people living in the Omo valley under-
went a process of villagization, sedentarization, and resettlement, analogous to state-led
resettlement processes within China.
The Ethiopian state frames resettlement as a way
to enhance environmental governance, development, and modernization. As a regional
government ocial noted:
According to the Growth and Transformation Plan, the country wants to transform the life
of these pastoralist people to a better and modern life As government representatives, we
have the responsibility to develop and modernize these people Therefore, we should
overcome resistance from the people and convince them to move to new villagization
Without access to a terrestrial ecology that supports traditional livelihood practices, pas-
toralists resettled by the Ethiopian state seek work at the KSDP sugar plantations in pro-
duction and processing.
KSDP, however, has fallen short of the projected scale of sugar
plantations and in the number of jobs it provides. Instead of the projected 175,000 hec-
tares, the project was downscaled in 2016 to100,000 hectares, only approximately 24,000
hectares of which have been cleared. Two processing factories are currently operational
in the Omo Valley and two more are under construction by the Chinese state-owned
enterprise Complant Ltd., resulting in roughly 30,000 agricultural jobs, approximately
four percent of the 700,000 jobs initially projected.
Resettlement without economic
venues for former agro-pastoralists has produced widespread precarity.
Ethiopian central state development rhetoric sanitizes processes of displacement and
socio-environmental transformation, while advancing state-corporate interests to prot
from sugar plantations. The government has benetted from increased energy and sugar
production, as well as new roadways. Ethiopia produces over 325,000 tons of sugar
Financing for ESC sugar factories came from ICBC.
Moreover, BRI
nancing has produced the roads that transport this sugar to the global marketplace.
In addition to its nancing of dams and sugar plantations, Chinese-led BRI roadway
construction has introduced tensions between Ethiopian laborers and Chinese managers.
In many labor disputes, local courts tend to rule in favor of Ethiopian laborers regardless
of the evidence presented. Moreover, laborers routinely resign over minor conicts,
which has led to competition between Chinese companies for workers. These dynamics
have prompted Chinese companies to maintain exible labor standards.
For instance,
Quotes in Regassa, Hizekiel, Korf 2019 and Oakland Institute 2019,8.
Regassa and Korf 2018; Regassa, Hizekiel, Korf 2019; National Planning Commission 2016.
Wilmsen 2011; Wilmsen, Webber, and Yuefang 2011; Yeh 2013.
Quoted in Regassa, Hizekiel, Korf 2019.
Gebresenbet 2019; Interview June 2020.
Kamski 2016; Oakland Institute 2019,4..
Rebel armies attacked ESC sugar infrastructure in early 2022, temporarily halting production. See Tadesse 2022.
Personal interview. August 2020.
Dreissen 2019.
Chinese companies have provided more breaks during the workday, overtime payments,
advances on salaries, medical coverage, and higher wages for Ethiopian workers, while
reducing formal punishments.
In addition, Chinese construction companies compete with one another for contracts
in Ethiopia, with varying degrees of support from central and provincial governments in
The China Communications Construction Company, a majority state-owned
and publicly traded company, has constructed many of the bridges, roads, and factories
needed for Ethiopias sugar plantations. China Exim Bank provided a loan of US$ 2.49
billion for the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway Project, the rst electric railway system
in Ethiopia.
China Railway Engineering Corporation was awarded a US$ 1.4 billion
contract to build the railway system, which became fully operational in 2018
Table 1).
In summary, Chinas BRI infrastructural partnerships in Ethiopia, in addition to pro-
ducing new interregional linkages, have also advanced the Ethiopian national develop-
ment agenda. Chinasnancial support has facilitated the construction of state-owned
sugar plantations and dams, as well as an electric grid to connect hydro power pro-
duction with the electric grid of neighboring Djibouti. This grid also powers a China
Railway Construction Corporation-funded train to Djibouti, thereby connecting land-
locked Ethiopia to the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean.
This is crucial
because roughly ninety-ve percent of Ethiopias trade is transported through Djiboutis
BRI infrastructure in Djibouti
Much of Chinas maritime BRI infrastructure investments have been in port develop-
ment. Since 2010, over US$ twenty billion in Chinese investment has gone into
foreign ports.
Port infrastructure is framed by the Chinese state as key to building
the Maritime Silk Road, particularly in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and around
the Horn of Africa the location of Djibouti.
Ports, by their nature, are multi-use facili-
ties. Port infrastructure serves as a docking point for boats and facilitates the ow of
goods across maritime space, as well as access to natural resources, such as sheries.
In addition to facilitating economic ows, port infrastructure undergirds
maritime militarization. Nearly one third of global shipping traverses east Africas
waters daily.
The Doraleh Multipurpose Port, west of Djibouti City, was built with BRI invest-
ments alongside Africas largest free trade zone the Djibouti International Economic
Free-trade Zone (FTZ). Chinas Dalian Port Corporation, a publicly traded SOE, built
the free trade zone at a cost of US$ 3.5 billion. Construction was contracted to China
Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a subsidiary of China Railway
Exact gures for salary increases are not publicly available. But these general trends are discussed in Dreissen 2019.
Fei 2021.
Custer 2021; Dreher 2022.
AEI 2021.
Gebre and Wainer 2020; Chen 2021.
Maasho 2018.
Economist 2020.
Sun and Zoubir 2017.
Construction Company.
The port, opened in 2018, is jointly owned and operated by
the government-owned Djibouti Ports and Free Trade Zones Authority (DPFZA)
which has a 66.5 percent ownership stake, and Chinas Merchant Holdings
Company, a central state-level SOE that has a 23.5 percent stake in the port.
relationship aords Chinese vessels priority handling and lower-cost docking fees.
Chinese central state capital, therefore, has facilitated key development interests of
the Djiboutian central state through maritime BRI infrastructure. In a 2021 global
comparative ranking of container ports, Djiboutis port ranked nineteenth.
2020, the port supported an annual container volume of 812,569 twenty-foot equival-
ent units (TEU), bolstering national exports of US$ 160 million.
That same year, the
port processed US$ 5.73 billion in imported goods, forty-three percent of which came
from China.
In this case, however, the materialization of maritime BRI infrastructure
does not simply revolve around economic prot, but also militarization.
In addition to port investments for trade, the Chinese government funded and built its
rst overseas military base in Djibouti to enhance its military presence, counter Somali
pirates, and protect its strategic economic interests around the Horn of Africa and in the
Indian Ocean.
The base is strategically situated on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which
separates the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and provides access to the Suez Canal. According
Table 1. Chinese investment in Ethiopian infrastructure.
Quantity in millions
of USD Main Chinese corporations
Railway $5,600 China Railway (SOE, sole proprietorship)
China Exim Bank (State-owned Policy Bank)
Sugar $1,550 State Development and Investment Corp (SOE, publicly
Jiangxi Jianglian International (Private)
Industrial Commercial Bank of China (State-Owned
Energy $5,250 China Energy Engineering (SOE, publicly traded)
Power Construction Corp. (SOE, publicly traded)
China Poly (SOE)
Sino-Hydro (SOE, publicly traded)
Dongfang Electric (SOE publicly traded)
China National Machinery Industry (SOE)
Industrial-Commercial Bank of China (ICBC, State-
owned Commerical Bank)
Roads $1,502 China Exim Bank (State-owned Policy Bank)
China Road and Bridge Corporation (SOE)
China Communication Construction (SOE, publicly
Sources: AEI (2021), Custer (2021) and Dreher 2022.
Styan 2022.
China Merchants Group is known for developing the Shekou industrial park, port, city modelin Shenzhen during early
market-reforms in the 1980s. See Wan et al. 2020.
Paris 2019.
World Bank 2021.
CEIC 2022.
OEC 2022.
McCabe 2019. By way of contrast, the United States has a military presence in eighteen foreign ports (Griths 2020).
Despite the contrast in numbers, US media outlets routinely decry Chinas Djibouti base as a global threat. On the trope
of China as threat, see Byrnes 2020.
to the IMF, this military base is expected to generate US$ twenty million annually in
rental payments for the government of Djibouti.
The Djiboutian government has welcomed ChinasBRIinvestmentsaspartofits
national development plan, which seeks to capitalize on the countrysgeographicallocation
at a key maritime point in the MENA region. A key part of this strategy is to capitalize on
land rents that facilitate access to ocean space, such as ports and military bases. In contrast
with BRI infrastructure investments in Ethiopia, however, there are fewer varieties of
Chinese capital active in constructing Djiboutian infrastructure. Major Chinese investors
in Djibouti are limited to central SOEs. Because the forms of Chinese capital most active
in Djibouti are closely tied to Chinas central state, they reect Chinas central state impera-
tives more readily than BRI infrastructure investments in Ethiopia (See Table 2).
From the standpoint of the Djiboutian government, port infrastructure and inter-
national military bases advance their development agenda, which revolves around mar-
itime infrastructure, international trade, and rents. Currently, Djibouti hosts ve foreign
military bases.
Djiboutisrst long-term strategic governance plan, dubbed Djibouti
Vision 2035,details the goal of becoming a regional trade hub. A key part of the plan
is to enhance regional integration and trade through international cooperation and
Djiboutis 20202024 National Development Plan, likewise, highlights enhancing
interregional connectivity.
Port infrastructure, for instance, includes the Damerjog
Livestock Export Terminal, which has the capacity to ship ten million head of livestock
per year sourced from Ethiopia and South Sudan.
These maritime rentier relationships
allow Djibouti to capitalize on its geographical location while maintaining a exible
patron-based political economic system so it can act as a gatekeeper to the MENA
Insofar as China is joining a number of states renting access to maritime spaces
along the Horn of Africa, Chinas involvement in Djiboutis maritime infrastructure
is quite mundane. The US, France, and Japan each maintain military bases in Djibouti.
China stands out, however, insofar as it is a substantial national investor and infra-
structural builder in Djibouti. China Exim Bank has provided an estimated US$ 1.4
billion for Djiboutis infrastructure projects. In 2016, the Djiboutian governments
Table 2. Chinese investment in Djiboutian infrastructure.
Quantity in millions of
USD Main Chinese corporations
Shipping $1,834 China Merchants Group (SOE, central state-level)
China State Construction and Engineering (SOE,
publicly traded)
China Exim Bank (State-owned Policy Bank)
Railway $1,601 China Railway (SOE, sole proprietorship) 20122015
Sources: AEI (2021), Custer et al. (2021) and Dreher et al. (2022).
Custer 2021.
In addition to Chinas military base, Djibouti hosts the United StatesCamp Lemonnier, Frances Base Aerienne 188, an
Italian military support base, and Japans Self-Defense Force Base. The World Bank (2018, 9) reports that the Djibouti
government generates 19 percent of its revenues from military bases.
Republic of Djibouti n.d.,47
Government of Djibouti 2020.
Custer 2021.
Styan 2019.
gross debt expressed as a percentage of GDP was roughly eighty-six percent.
Much of
this debt is owed to China Exim Bank. Commercial contracts for constructing Doraleh
port were given to major Chinese rms, including China State Construction Engineer-
ing Corporation and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. Addition-
ally, China Merchants Group has undertaken a crucial political and economic role
as co-manager of Doraleh port and co-manager of Africas largest free trade zone
alongside DPFZA.
While some scholars have been critical of overemphasizing the geopolitical interests of
maritime BRI,
formal statements by the Chinese government explicitly foreground its
maritime territorial interests in relation to sheries. The PRCs Ministry of Agriculture
and Rural Aairs refers to Chinas DWF industry as central to global BRI eorts and
as strengthening maritime state power’” (haiyang qiang guo).
Conversely, according
to Chinas Ocean Fishery Development Plan, building overseas bases is central to extend-
ing the territorial reach of Chinas DWF eets.
In practice, therefore, port infrastruc-
ture extends Chinas military reach while facilitating access to marine resources in
East Africa and maritime trade routes.
Maritime infrastructure is not only central to inter-state renting of maritime spaces,
but also shapes environmental governance. China has an expansive DWF eet backed
with substantial state subsidies.
Maritime infrastructure projects have provided
Chinese DWF vessels greater access to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf
while deepening economic ties with Djibouti. In terms of maritime environmental
governance, the case of Djibouti exhibits a sharp contrast with maritime BRI infra-
structure projects in West African states that exchange access to domestic waters
for Chinese eets for nancial services and construction. For instance, the Maurita-
nian national government and the municipal government of Nouadhibou (the coun-
trys second largest city) have welcomed PRC port investments and skills training in
exchange for access to local sheries. Since Chinas DWF industrial trawlers began
shing near Nouadhibou, local small-scale shers have experienced diminishing
Chinas DWF presence poses a challenge to sustainable sheries in West
Furthermore, competition between local small-
scale sheries and industrial trawlers threatens local sherslivelihoods. Chinese
shing eets, such as those belonging to Dong Xing Long Ocean Fishing Company,
have also been found shing in protected Djiboutian waters.
China Merchants
Group, in their role as co-manager of the port, is positioned to mediate trade alongside
Djiboutian port authorities. If DWF ships deliverthroughtheDoralehPort,regulatory
oversight would come from both China Merchants Group and DPFZA. Like the case
of Ethiopia, however, BRI infrastructure development remains central to advancing
Djiboutian national developmental interests.
Hurley, Morris and Portelance 2019.
Woon 2020.
Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Aairs PRC 2017.
Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Aairs PRC 2017.
Pauly et al. 2014; Mallory 2016.
Interview August 2020; Mallory 2013.
Chinassheries account for over 15 percent of global shing annually. See Barkin and Desombre 2013.
Interview September 2021.
Ethiopian and Djiboutian BRI infrastructure in comparison
Ethiopia is ranked 173rd out of 189 countries on the HDI. Djibouti ranks 172nd. Both
countriesnational plans explicitly aim to increase development capacity. Moreover,
both countries have embraced investments and infrastructural construction from
China to advance their development agendas. Despite these shared features, discrepan-
cies in development plans, infrastructure projects, and varieties of Chinese capital con-
tribute to contrasting social, economic, and environmental outcomes.
There is a signicant variety of Chinese capital in Ethiopias infrastructure investment
and construction (see Table 1). Numerous central- and provincial-level SOEs and private
Chinese corporations have nanced and built terrestrial infrastructure including roads,
railways, energy plants, and sugar plantations. This heterogeneity of Chinese capital
eschews a singular relationship with the Ethiopian state and society. Even though the
CCP has forged close relationships with the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Demo-
cratic Front (the ruling political coalition), many of the Chinese corporations operating
in Ethiopia are private enterprises. As these compete with one another to advance their
own interests,
there is considerable leverage for partner states to set terms and bargain
with Chinese corporations.
To work successfully within this context, Chinese compa-
nies tend not to interfere with local governance.
Chinese rms operate through varie-
gated work regimes that are locally responsive to state demands and labor, yet remain
embedded in subnational operational capacities within China and interlinked with
global circuits of capital.
Contractual arrangements between partner states and varieties of Chinese capital,
nonetheless, tend to support the Ethiopian governments development agenda. Ethiopias
state development plan, for instance, explicitly notes that increasing sugar production is
key to bolstering agricultural exports. State plans project US$ 586.2 million in earnings
over the coming years while bolstering local employment, despite scaled back sugar plan-
Factories, roads, and railways, built largely by Chinese corporations, are central
to transporting the countrys sugar to global markets. Upstream dams, also built by
Chinese corporations, have altered local ecologies while the resettlement of displaced
people has contributed to a cheap domestic labor supply for sugar plantations. The Ethio-
pian state frames these outcomes as means to bring civilization, modernization, and
improved livelihoods to Indigenous agro-pastoralists, while also proting from processes
of land dispossession. In contrast with Djibouti, where Chinas military interests are
clearly relevant to maritime BRI infrastructure investments, numerous national and sub-
national corporate actors are involved in BRI investment and construction in Ethiopia,
and in turn, are linked to subregional corporate networks within China.
In contrast, the Djiboutian government has partnered with far fewer sources of
Chinese capital. As noted above, among the most prominent is China Merchant
Group, a central state SOE operating under the Chinese Ministry of Transportation.
The close ties between China Merchant Group and Chinas national government are a
Zhang 2021; Fei 2021.
Wissenbach 2020.
Carrai 2021.
Fei 2020.
National Planning Commission 2020, 1516, 140.
Fei 2021.
clear example of BRI infrastructure projects advancing Chinas national strategic
Scholars have conceptualized the territorialization of ocean spaces and resources as
forms of mobile state power.
In these mobile iterations, state power operates
through dierent forms, such as shing vessels, surveillance systems, and capital ows.
Chinas maritime BRI infrastructure investments in Djibouti, however, fall short of a hol-
istic enclosure of ocean resources, sometimes called ocean grabbing,which entail prac-
tices such as blocking local shersaccess to sheries.
Instead, maritime BRI
infrastructure investments in Djibouti facilitate greater resource access for Chinese
capital and enhanced mobility for the PRCs navy and exports traversing Djiboutian ter-
ritorial waters. At times, this results in tensions, such as those between Chinas DWF
eets and local shers. Yet, Djiboutis maritime BRI infrastructure developments have
not resulted in a loss of sovereign control over resources.
Rather, the relationship between Chinese capital and maritime infrastructure rep-
resents a strategic form of rentiership embedded in the Djiboutian states development
plan. As noted above, the Djiboutian government welcomes FDI as part of its eort to
become a regional trading hub.
Furthermore, port infrastructure investments
support the strategic interests of the state-owned DPFZA. Djiboutis state economic strat-
egy, therefore, entails extracting rents for access to oceanic spaces via maritime
In both Ethiopia and Djibouti, partner state development plans have been advanced
through BRI infrastructure investments. In Djibouti, Chinese government interests
have been advanced through the strategic eorts of Chinese SOEs that have close
ties with the central state. Ethiopias BRI infrastructure, in contrast, doesnt necessarily
advance Chinas national interests outside of bilateral economic diplomacy and access
to emerging markets. Various types of Chinese capital seek to prot through involve-
ment in Ethiopian infrastructure projects. Despite this key dierence, in both cases BRI
infrastructure projects have contributed to reshaping environmental governance. The
Ethiopian government mirrors Chinas mechanistic approach to socio-environmental
governance by extensively reconguring terrestrial ecologies with transformative
eects on the lives and labor of Indigenous agro-pastoralists. Djiboutis port and mili-
tary base, insofar as they provide a haven for Chinas DWF eets, facilitate competition
with the local shing industry for resources, but not at the expense of state sovereignty.
Ultimately, BRI infrastructure projects materialize in relation to partner state develop-
mental agendas and varieties of Chinese capital. Partner states set the conditions for
Chinese investments and demand particular types of infrastructure based on their stra-
tegic objectives. Within this context, Chinese companies compete with one another to
provide these desired infrastructure projects. While contracts inevitably support
capital interests and partner states, to what degree they support the Chinese govern-
ments interests varies in these cases.
In sum, BRI investment and infrastructure projects advance the development goals of
these two East African states. Narratives surrounding the BRI often portray China as an
Havice 2018; Hung and Lien 2022; Huang 2022.
Bennet et al. 2015.
Republic of Djibouti n.d.; NDP 2020.
emerging leader in international development, particularly through partnerships with
Global South countries.
To conclude, I turn to the role of the BRI in reshaping
Global South development and environmental governance.
Chinas BRI contributes to advancing state development interests in the East African
countries of Ethiopia and Djibouti, as well as in shaping environmental governance.
Moreover, the relative articulations between partner state development interests and
infrastructure projects are mediated by varieties of Chinese capital. This argument coun-
ters claims that the BRI in Africa has turned the subcontinent into a client territory of the
PRC. In reality, BRI investments are dierent in form, often dierent in source, and logi-
cally serve partner state interests. Even though the two cases presented vary considerably
in terms of varieties of Chinese investment, both the PRC and partner governments tend
to frame infrastructural investments and construction as win-winrelations that con-
tribute to building a green BRI. In practice, however, the BRI operates less as a set of
rm policies for green development than as an investment agenda which is highly adap-
tive to local political economic contexts.
BRI infrastructural types diverge signicantly in these two countries, in part because
dierent types of Chinese capital are operationalized in response to the development
agendas of each partner. Infrastructure built in the pursuit of partner state development
is the medium through which new environmental governance relations emerge. The
uneven socio-environmental outcomes of BRI infrastructure in Ethiopia and Djibouti
call into question in what sense the BRI can be considered greenand who benets
from these infrastructures. In Ethiopia, terrestrial BRI infrastructure projects have
been crucial to advancing state modernization plans, which include state-owned sugar
plantations. Similarly, port and military infrastructure projects and a free trade zone
are critical components of the Djiboutian states long-term development strategy.
While the Chinese government frames the BRI as part of building a green silk road,
the types of infrastructure that materialize tend to reproduce Global NorthSouth
developmental and environmental inequalities.
Low-carbon BRI investments are pri-
marily concentrated in Global North countries. In contrast, Global South countries
predominantly receive mitigation and knowledge sharing programs. The most
common types of BRI infrastructure investments in Global South countries have
been coal-red power plants and hydro dams.
In Ethiopia, for instance, hydro-
power dam construction has resulted in substantial disruption of local ecosystems
and social relationships to nature.
The perpetuation of this uneven global develop-
ment trajectory is, in part, why voices like those expressed in the Green Silk Road
Initiative Declaration call for international oversight mechanisms for BRI infrastruc-
ture projects.
Portraying the BRI as a mechanism of green development is crucial to the Chinese
governmentseorts to frame itself as a global leader on the environment and
Chin and Gallagher 2019; Dunford 2021; Liao 2022.
Lele 1991; Escobar 2011; Jasano2018.
Peng, Liu and Zhang 2017; Harlan 2020; Liao 2022.
Carr 2017.
sustainability. Toward this end, Chinas NDRC recently announced that the PRC would
halt the construction of coal plants oversees, except for those that began construction
during 2021.
NDRC has also pledged to improve environmental risk assessment of
overseas BRI infrastructure projects and strengthen the environmental governance
capacity of Global South countries. Yet, what counts as sustainableand green devel-
opment,as shown above, is inevitably contested and locally contingent.
The varieties of Chinese capital and partner state interests that undergird each BRI
infrastructure project underscore the need to move beyond simplistic framings of win-
win relationships and narratives that portray the Chinese government as having total
control over Chinese corporations abroad. Rather, the uneven social, economic, pol-
itical, and environmental outcomes resulting from BRI infrastructure projects are con-
tingent on the relative articulations between partner state development agendas and
various forms of Chinese capital. Since partner states are responsible for regulating
foreign investment, construction, and environmental standards within their borders,
grounded research is needed to account for the dynamics between partner state gov-
ernance, Chinese investments and corporations, and environmental change across
international cases. Further studies are therefore necessary to examine how BRI infra-
structure projects reshape development, societies, and environments in other partner
I wish to thank Jianqing Chen and Adam Liebman for thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this
article, participants at the 2021 International Convention of Asian Scholars Conference where I
presented this work, as well as the anonymous reviewers and CAS editor Robert Shepherd for
their incisive comments.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Fellowship support for researching and writing this article has been provided by the Cornell Atkin-
son Center for Sustainability, Princeton Universitys Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contem-
porary China, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Notes on contributor
Jesse Rodenbiker is an Associate Research Scholar at the Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Con-
temporary China at Princeton University and an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department
of Geography at Rutgers University. He also is a fellow of the American Council of Learned
Societies and a Wilson China Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
His book, Ecological States: Politics of Science and Nature in Urbanizing China will be published
in 2023 by Cornell University Press.
NDRC 2022.
Jesse Rodenbiker
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