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Secondary Cities Along the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia

Journée d’étude / Atelier

In the last few years, the abundant research on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has neglected - with few exceptions - the implications that this program launched by China in 2013 might have on cities. This conference panel aims to give account of the avenues of investigation and preliminary research results produced by our research team working on this theme. More specifically, we interrogate how the BRI plays a part in the urban development and internationalization of secondary cities in continental Southeast Asia. Secondary cities are defined here as those cities that do not play a leading role in the world economy, but would like to improve their ranking and visibility in the regional and international arenas. Because of the official and ambitious character of the BRI, urban actors across Southeast Asia, in partnership with Chinese investors, use the BRI as a tool for legitimizing urban projects and development programs that create new urban districts and cities, all while contributing to the financialization of local real estate markets. This is particularly true in secondary cities that are looking for new development levers. The panel provides case study-based research on several projects of this kind located in urban Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia.

Furthermore, and more broadly, the panel critically questions the apparent contradiction between the « bright » and « dark » sides of the BRI in the urban field. On the one hand, Chinese scholars, think tanks, and experts - in close connection with Chinese official actors and donors - put forward visions for green, and smart urban development, mainly based on the performance of technical urban infrastructure. On the other hand, urban programs funded by private investors claim to be part of the BRI seem to have, as a main objective, the maximization of short-term profit through the exploitation of land and the commercialization of real estate. On this basis, the panel discusses the multifacetted and evolutive nature of the Belt and Road Initiative. Rather than defining a consistent policy framework, the BRI assembles diverse and sometimes competing urban initiatives and projects that allow (or even institutionalize) high degrees of informality in the decision-making processes. Taken into account this striking plurality, is it relevant - and under which conditions - to use the expression « BRI city » as a relevant analytical category ?

20 août 2021