In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Belt and Road Initiative

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Thematic Engagement in Geographic Journals
  • Chinese OFDI and Trade Flows at the Time of BRI
  • Environment and Sustainable Development
  • Labor Practices and Local Livelihoods

Geography Belt and Road Initiative
Xiao Han, Weidong Liu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0253


The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) has been an eye-catching term among social scientists, including human geographers, across the world. Pointing to the Chinese call for new modes of regional and international cooperation, the BRI originates from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal to develop a “Silk Road Economic Belt” (“One Belt”) and a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (“One Road”) during his visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013. In 2015, the Chinese central government released an Action Plan of the BRI, publicizing its designated principles, framework, as well as cooperation priorities and mechanisms of promoting the BRI. This White Paper has also specified five focuses of future BRI development, including policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties. At the end of the BRI’s first five-year development in 2018, the Chinese government announced that it had signed BRI-oriented cooperative agreements with more than one hundred countries and international organizations. Since then, the Chinese government proposed to promote the “high quality” development of the BRI and gradually added new keywords to this grand scheme, including but not limited to “green,” “digital,” and “health.” Existing literature on BRI has incorporated insights of geography, economics, international relations, development studies, and environmental studies. This article contours existing knowledge on the BRI in geography and related disciplines in social sciences, with an integrated sensitivity to spatial embeddedness of specific BRI practices and its consequences. A considerable thread of BRI literature has examined the political economic nature of BRI. The BRI is understood as a Chinese preferred “spatial fix” to its domestic overaccumulation problems as well as a tool to serve China’s geopolitical interests through the making of discourses, imaginaries, and on-ground practices. BRI boosts investment and trade flows through infrastructure and connectivity projects. Although scholarly attention is often paid to the Chinese state as a whole in the discursive and strategic making of BRI, subnational state actors and non-state actors also actively engage with host country actors for specific BRI projects, the implementation of which can be affected by the combined path dependency and temporal-spatial conditions. BRI, in turn, is also examined to inform the nature of contemporary Chinese politics, the ways in which it benefits or affects the economic development and well-being of other populations and the wider environment, the uncertainties and changing spatiality concerning social, cultural, urban and intellectual issues, as well as for methodological reflections.

General Overviews

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is understood and used in different ways. Generally speaking, existing BRI studies can be categorized into four strands that portray the BRI as geopolitics, geoeconomics, Chinese exceptionalism, and the “Silk Road Imaginary” (Lin, et al. 2021). For example, claiming to analyze the BRI from the Chinese perspective, Dunford and Liu 2019 conceptualizes the BRI as a Chinese call for inclusive globalization, a new model of regional and international development, inspired by the so-called “Silk Road Spirit” (Liu 2015). BRI is also viewed as a “spatial fix” of China’s domestic overaccumulation problems (Summers 2016 and Sum 2019). With attention paid to the new city-regionalism in Western China, BRI is also known as enabling a multidimensional rescaling fix to the country’s interior problems (Zhang and He 2021). Besides, many Western scholars view the BRI as China’s geopolitical project that has been brought into being and given multiple even competing logics and temporal-spatial conditions (Richardson 2021). The BRI is also used as an example to examine how space is being remade at various scales, highlighting the opportunity to interrogate state power and sovereignty at current time (Kuus 2019); and as a technopolitical endeavor and for a methodological guide (Oakes 2021).

  • Dunford, Michael, and Weidong Liu. “Chinese Perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative.” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 12.1 (2019):145–167.

    DOI: 10.1093/cjres/rsy032

    Outlining the BRI’s evolution and the ideas underlying it as expressed in official documents and speeches, this article regards the BRI as a Chinese call for an open and inclusive model of sustainable international cooperation and development and for a multi-polar world order. This call advocates non-interference and economic advantages of closer international cooperation with China, representing an existential danger against political and economic forces upholding the current “global hegemon.”

  • Kuus, Merje. “Political Geography III: Bounding the International.” Progress in Human Geography 44.6 (2019): 1185–1193.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132519869457

    The BRI is examined for understanding region-making and regionalism to inform how imaginaries and practices “remake” space at the international and supranational scale. Concerning existing studies on international borders, this article points to flexible practices and the multiple forms of borders, highlighting interdisciplinary understanding of current forms of the “resilience of state power and the transformations of sovereignty.”

  • Lin, Shaun, Naoko Shimazu, and James D. Sidaway. “Theorising from the Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路).” In Special Issue: BRI as Method Forum. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 62.3 (2021): 261–269.

    DOI: 10.1111/apv.12322

    Existing literature focusing on the nature and consequences of BRI has framed the BRI as representing the Chinese strategy and response to other powers (geopolitics), as the tool of a spatial or infrastructural fix (geoeconomics), as offering a win-win development model with a new spirit of harmony (Chinese exceptionalism), and through tracing and making “Silk Road” narrative as imaginary). BRI is also increasingly investigated through specific localities and projects.

  • Liu, Weidong. “Scientific Understanding of the Belt and Road Initiative of China and Related Research Themes.” Progress in Geography 34.5 (2015): 538–544.

    The BRI provides an alternative way to deepen economic globalization. However, it differentiates from existing globalization practices given its integration of the Spirit of the Silk Road, which stresses “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and win-win.” This article proposes to advance geopolitical studies, geographies of international cooperation, foreign direct investment, and optimization of transcontinental transportation as key areas for a better understanding of the BRI. In Chinese.

  • Oakes, Tim. “The Belt and Road as method: Geopolitics, technopolitics and power through an infrastructure lens.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 62.3 (2021): 281–285.

    DOI: 10.1111/apv.12319

    Conventional approach to the political and political power of BRI is insufficient. Reframing the BRI from the perspective of technopolitics, the authors questions “how political power is realized or frustrated, enhanced or diverted, by the distributed and relational nature of infrastructure projects” and attempts to set up a research agenda and research framework concerning the growth and evolution of infrastructure projects, their social-political-cultural embeddedness, and their political effects.

  • Richardson, Paul B. “Geopolitical Encounters and Entanglements along the Belt and Road Initiative.” Geography Compass 15.8 (2021): e12583.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12583

    The BRI is viewed as a visible geopolitical project that has been examined from classical, critical, radical, assemblage, and feminist perspectives. This review article also facilitates a conversation on the value of applying multiple approaches and different types of knowledge to the BRI, with attention paid to the competing logics, contexts, relations, and elements that bring the BRI into being.

  • Sum, Ngai-Ling. “The Intertwined Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Hopes/Fears: China’s Triple Economic Bubbles and the ‘One Belt One Road’ Imaginary.” Territory, Politics, Governance 7.4 (2019): 528–552.

    DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2018.1523746

    This article examines China’s geostrategic imaginary of the BRI and its development concerning political and geoeconomics of hopes and fears. The “China Dream,” “New Normal,” and the BRI are viewed as Chinese hope-based discursive production. The material translation of the BRI imaginary into policies is viewed as a “spatial fix” to suspend China’s over-accumulation crises, while consolidating a China-intended infrastructural mode of growth in production, finance, and security.

  • Summers, Tim. “China’s ‘New Silk Roads’: Sub-national Regions and Networks of Global Political Economy.” Third World Quarterly 37.9 (2016):1628–1643.

    DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2016.1153415

    This article argues that the BRI contains sub-national ideas and practices that the spatial paradigms of BRI represent the reproduction of capitalist ideas of development in the form of networks, featuring contemporary global political economy. In so doing, the vision of BRI is more of a state-led “spatial fix” than for geopolitical ambition, tending to promote the networks of capital flows through infrastructure development, at least across the Eurasian continent.

  • Zhang, Mengzhu, and Shenjing He. “From Dissensus to Consensus: State Rescaling and Modalities of Power under the Belt and Road Initiative in Western China.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 111.5 (2021): 1519–1538.

    DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2020.1823808

    This article draws on the territory–place–scale–network (TPSN) approach and post-structural theory of state power to reconceptualize state rescaling as a multidimensional process. Pointing to the new city-regionalism in Western China, it examines the ways in which China uses BRI for a “rescaling fix” to address domestic problems. It regards BRI as a TPSN-informed reconfiguration of China’s interior production system, which optimistically involves a complicated reorganization of socio-spatial relations.

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