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How Local Political Economy Dynamics Are Shaping the Belt and Road Initiative

Loughlin, N. & Grimsditch, M. (2021). How Local Political Economy Dynamics Are Shaping the Belt and Road Initiative. Third World Quarterly, 42(10), pp. 2334-2352. doi: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1950528


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s ambiguity has opened the door to varied interpretations. Developing a structural political economy analysis, we push back against overgeneralised one-directional accounts in favour of a more nuanced localised reading, to show how recipient state political economy dynamics mediate the BRI as it unfolds in participating countries. We demonstrate this through analysis of Cambodia’s industrial development, drawing from evidence of special economic zones (SEZs), and specifically the Sihanoukville SEZ, now touted as a ‘model’ of BRI cooperation by both China and Cambodia. We show this model to be a continuation of earlier neoliberal logics of uneven growth and precarity, perpetuating Cambodia’s conflictual authoritarian developmentalism. This investment, now increasingly framed under the BRI, supports infrastructure development and industrial expansion, feeding the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s longstanding elite-patronage system, while generating jobs for ordinary Cambodians in manufacturing and other low-added-value industries. In our analysis, local political economy dynamics and contestation emerge as critical for explaining trajectories and outcomes associated with the BRI. In the process we unpick the discourses ascribed to the BRI in Cambodia and more broadly. Our findings have implications for policymaking in Cambodia and China, and for other development actors engaging with the BRI.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript version of the following article, accepted for publication in Third World Quarterly. Loughlin, N. and Grimsditch, M. (2021). How Local Political Economy Dynamics Are Shaping the Belt and Road Initiative. Third World Quarterly is deposited under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Publisher Keywords: China, Cambodia, Belt and Road Initiative, political economy, investment
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HB Economic Theory
J Political Science > JQ Political institutions Asia
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > International Politics
[img] Text - Accepted Version
This document is not freely accessible until 6 February 2023 due to copyright restrictions.
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

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