Two books explore different dimensions of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s vast infrastructure and investment project. Ye compares the BRI, which started in 2013, with two previous programs: the Western Development Program, which was initiated in 1999 and directed funds and expertise from China’s coastal provinces to the interior, and the Go Global policy, an initiative started in 2000 that encouraged Chinese investment overseas. She discerns a common pattern. When a leader faces a national economic slowdown, he announces a program that is both “ambitious and ambiguous” in order to mobilize enterprises and government entities to invest more boldly. State-owned enterprises, ministries, and local governments scramble to fit what they are already doing or want to do under the new initiative’s umbrella and to secure authorizations, incentives, and financing. In this context, she says, “almost anybody was allowed to do almost anything.” The central government’s initiatives have led in each case to a burst of activity that strengthened subnational entities while diminishing the ability of Beijing to control these disparate actors. Despite their messiness, the programs succeeded in their ultimate goal: they kept the Chinese economy humming along and, in so doing, deepened China’s integration into the global economy.
Lampton and his colleagues study the surge of Chinese investment from the other end, as they examine Chinese railway projects in seven countries in Southeast Asia. Beijing has grandly envisioned what will be the Pan-Asia Railway Network, which it plans to have run from Kunming, in China, through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia, to Singapore, with branches reaching into Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. This vision has not been—and will not be—easy to implement. Southeast Asian politicians, ministries, and interest groups disagree about financing, Chinese dominance, and the distribution of harms and benefits along the rail lines. These struggles often lead to the suspension or renegotiation of projects even after construction has started. Although the effort is fragmented, the authors believe the network will ultimately be built, that it will spur revolutionary growth in Southeast Asia, and that it will tie the region ever more closely to China.