Geopolitics of Infrastructure and Connectivity Cooperation

Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled what would come to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a global development strategy involving infrastructure projects and associated financing throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. While the Chinese government has framed the plan as one promoting transnational connectivity, critics and security experts see it as part of a larger strategy to achieve global dominance. Rivers of Iron examines one aspect of President Xi Jinping’s “New Era”: China’s effort to create an intercountry railway system connecting China and its seven Southeast Asian neighbors (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam). This book illuminates the political strengths and weaknesses of the plan, as well as the capacity of the impacted countries to resist, shape, and even take advantage of China’s wide-reaching actions. Using frameworks from the fields of international relations and comparative politics, the authors of Rivers of Iron seek to explain how domestic politics in these eight Asian nations shaped their varying external responses and behaviors. How does China wield power using infrastructure? Do smaller states have agency? How should we understand the role of infrastructure in broader development? Does industrial policy work? And crucially, how should competing global powers respond?


David M. Lampton, Selina Ho, and Cheng-Chwee Kuik. Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, October 2020), 307pp. ISBN-13: 978-0520372993 / ISBN-10: 0520372999

Southeast Asian Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

How and why do smaller states respond to big power-backed infrastructure connectivity cooperation differently from each other? This special issue addresses these questions by focusing on Southeast Asian states’ responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There are variations across the responses. While some have engaged the BRI enthusiastically (Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore), others have reacted more cautiously (Indonesia, Thailand) or have kept their distance (Vietnam, Philippines under Benigno Aquino III, Myanmar under Thein Sein). Several have shifted positions—in both directions—under different leaderships (e.g., Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi, and, to some extent, Malaysia under the second Mahathir Mohamad administration). Adopting an asymmetry-authority (AA) framework, this project examines how the structural effects of external power asymmetry are filtered through the ruling elites’ internal authority necessity, leading to varying patterns of small state responses across countries and across time.



Special Issue (Guest Editor)Southeast Asian Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in Asian Perspective (Johns Hopkins University Press), Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring 2021).

“Asymmetry and Authority: Theorizing Southeast Asian Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative”, Asian Perspective, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 255-276. 

“Malaysia’s Fluctuating Engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Leveraging Asymmetry, Legitimizing Authority”, Asian Perspective, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 421-444.

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