The History of Chinese Infrastructure in Southeast Asia

Imperial Legacies, Socialist Continuities, and Modernist Aspirations
Wednesday
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room 1

  • Organised by Hans Steinmüller
  • Alessandro Rippa, Chair
  • Hans Steinmüller, “Maoist Connectivity: The Infrastructures of Transport and Communication in the Communist Party of Burma, 1969–89”
  • C. Patterson Giersch, “Enclaves and Connectivity: Space and Chinese Economic Activity in the Sino-Southeast Asian Borderlands”
  • Jianxiong Ma, “Imperial Infrastructures: Chiefs, Mules, and Pilgrims at the China–Burma Frontier, from the 1430s to the 1880s”
  • Panitda Saiyarod, “China’s Transnational Infrastructure: The History of Roads and Infrastructure Development in the Upper-Mekong Borderlands”

This panel examines China’s presence in Southeast Asia through an analysis of its infrastructure construction in the region. Unlike most recent literature on the subject, we do not limit our scope to the last two decades of investments as part of the “Going Out” strategy and the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Rather, we put these most recent developments in a broader historical perspective, investigating imperial legacies as well as socialist continuities. Contributors engage with infrastructure projects stretching from the late Qing dynasty to today and approach infrastructure as a development tool, a site of contention, and a mode of governance. Our focus on the long-term histories of Chinese infrastructure construction in the region provides new perspectives on the political, social, and material forces that are shaping the region today. 

Hans Steinmüller, “Maoist Connectivity: The Infrastructures of Transport and Communication in the Communist Party of Burma, 1969–89”

Following a radical turn of Chinese policy toward open support of Communist guerrillas across Southeast Asia, in 1969 the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) occupied large swaths of land along the Chinese border. The CPB ruled over these mountainous areas for the following 20 years and established the first local government structures. To do so, it relied on logistical, economic and military support from China. The CPB also soon levied taxes and forced labour and got involved in the local opium trade. Based on archival research and oral history, this presentation deals with the contestations about the infrastructure of transport and communication in the CPB-controlled territories. In the mountains, transport relied mainly on the mule routes that provided periodical markets, the opium trade, and local armies. The CPB used the same routes while also building new roads and investing in military infrastructure. Often, however, the army had to make ends meet by using more efficient roads and means of communication on the Chinese side of the border. Local foot soldiers, Chinese Red Guards, and Burmese leaders made different uses of the means transport and communication. The contestations around such infrastructures were central to the governance established by the CPB, and the fault lines of infrastructure played an important role in the mutiny of 1989 that led to the demise of the party. What remained after 1989 were the new forms of Maoist connectivity the CPB had established, and this connectivity paved the way for state-building at the China-Myanmar border since.

C. Patterson Giersch, “Enclaves and Connectivity: Space and Chinese Economic Activity in the Sino-Southeast Asian Borderlands

Recent work on the Southeast Asia borderlands highlights the contradictory spatial geography of Chinese-led investment and infrastructure development. While One Belt One Road and other projects are imagined through maps depicting transnational infrastructures of smooth connectivity, the actual implementation of investment is primarily directed to specific locations or nodes—Special Economic Zones and Free Trade Zones—where the Chinese state and profit-driven transnational elites configure governance to promote economic activity labelled as development for backwards or wild regions. The results produce patterns of connectivity to Chinese markets that rely on enclaved spaces where forms of Chinese governmental practices are implemented. While the technologies of governance and economic development are specific to the early twenty-first century, the nodal geography of Chinese investment in the Sino-Southeast Asian borderlands is a legacy of the past. This paper presents three case studies to explore the ways in which historical Chinese economic activity has clustered in enclaved spaces where Chinese institutions, both state and transfrontier elite, supported trading and extractive activities. The cases include Qing military garrisons and the southern Yunnan tea industry in the 1730s, Chinese merchant institutions and the Kengtung cotton trade in the 1830s, and Chinese business practices and the Mandalay silk trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These historical cases will help us explore the ways in which today’s Chinese presences in Southeast Asia has been shaped by and liberated from past practices.

Jianxiong Ma, “Imperial Infrastructures: Chiefs, Mules, and Pilgrims at the China–Burma Frontier, from the 1430s to the 1880s

In the border region of China and Burma, Shan chiefs had been dynamic mediators between Chinese courts and Burmese kingdoms since at least the 1400s. The infrastructures of these chiefdoms emerged from relations of conquest, marriage, and ritual. While Shan chiefs distinguished themselves from commoners through marriage alliances with neighbouring chiefs, they also had to adapt to changing overlords, including the imperial courts of the Ming and Qing dynasty. Within these chiefdoms, traders, migrants, and local populations created their own infrastructures: mule caravan networks for the circulation of jade, ruby, cotton, minerals and medicine herbs linked basins and mountains into a market system extending from the ports of the Yangtze to the Irrawaddy River. In addition, Buddhist and Islamic pilgrimages, as well as the deification of Chinese military generals in local temples, created their own geography and infrastructure. The margins of the imperial infrastructures thus unify the agency of chiefs, mules, and pilgrims, and the resulting networks highlight the frontier landmarks of the cosmology of All under Heaven at the China–Burma border. 

Panitda Saiyarod, “China’s Transnational Infrastructure: The History of Roads and Infrastructure Development in the Upper-Mekong Borderlands

Over the past several decades, and notably before the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, many enormous infrastructure projects have been built to connect China to the world. Southeast Asia, in particular, has been at the forefront of such efforts to connect. This paper aims to approach transnational infrastructure projects in the Upper Mekong Sub-region as a process to materialise political aspiration and political ideology. A site of power contestation emerges through the history of Chinese roads building and infrastructure development supported by the United States during the 1960s–1970s in the border towns in northern Thailand and north-western Laos. The research shows how these development projects have reformulated relationships among these communities and China. The paper thus argues that infrastructure projects are not just technical objects, but they have the capacity to generate insecurity, uncertainty and ambiguity in the region.

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Room 1
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Imperial Legacies, Socialist Continuities, and Modernist Aspirations