Ian Ja Chong: Where Have I Seen This Before? Colonialism, the Cold War, and China’s Belt and Road


April, 24, 2019, 10:00 -11:30


Trainee center 3.40, Vodární 6


China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to connect East Asia with Europe and Africa through a network of railroads, highways, ports, and airports traversing Central and Southeast Asia. Optimists see the exercise as bringing much needed infrastructure, development, capital, and eventually, prosperity to currently under-developed parts of the world. Pessimists point to resulting high levels of indebtedness, environmental unsustainability, and the potential for governance problems. Such perspectives ignore why these many of the areas the Belt and Road promises to link do not yet have the facilities that the mega project as promising. Lack of trying is not a reason.

The BRI will not have a tabula rasa. Efforts to construct routes across and around the Eurasian landmass as well as Africa had been a dream for many a colonial power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Likewise, both superpowers and their major allies during the Cold War sought to bring development and connectivity to these very same regions. Associated with almost all these attempts were claims of particular virtue, be they capitalism and democracy, socialism, the White Man’s Burden, or the Mission Civilisatrice. Many ground to a halt if not for harsh environmental conditions, then local opposition, political unrest and upheaval, or even anti-colonial movements. This talk will examine the risks that these legacies pose to China’s BRI and wider ambitions, as well as the wider implications of such conditions.


Ja Ian Chong is associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. He previously worked with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, and was a Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program fellow. Dr. Chong’s work crosses the fields of international relations, comparative politics, and political sociology, with a focus on security issues relating to China and East Asia. He follows the interplay of social movements, politics, and foreign policy in East Asia closely.

Dr. Chong’s  work appears in a number of journals, edited volumes, and newspapers, including the China Quarterly, European Journal of International RelationsInternational Security, and Security Studies. He is author of External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation: China, Thailand, Indonesia – 1893-1952, Cambridge University Press, 2012, recipient of the 2013/4 Best Book Award from the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association. Dr. Chong will be a 2019-2020 Harvard-Yenching Fellow.