Wolfram Schaffar: In Search of Theories and Concepts to Make Sense of BRI – World Systems Theory, the Imperial Chain and the Primacy of Inner Factors


Wednesday, March 15, 2019, 10:00-11:30


Trainee Centre, Vodární 6


Since the launch of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the project has been compared to the expansion of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Ming Dynasty or to the Marshall Plan. Indeed, recent developments – an escalating trade war between China and the USA, warnings against “new colonialism” by the Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and the EU’s acknowledgement of China as a “systemic rival” – suggest that theories of hegemony and imperialism might provide us with the right concepts.

One strand of recent literature analyses the BRI as a symptom of the rise of a new global power (Huotari, Gaspers, Eder, Legarda, Mokry 2017, Legarda 2017, 2018) or even as the rise of a new empire. Embong, Evers and Ramli (2017) see parallels between BRI and the geographic patterns of expansion of the British Empire when the East-India Company invested in harbours and prepared the ground for land seizure and colonisation. A similar argument is made by authors who analyse China’s foreign policy towards developing countries (Reeves, 2018) or towards Europe and Australia (Benner, Gasper, Ohlberg, Pogetti and Shi-Kupfer 2018). In a similar vein, Ghiasy, Su and Saalman (2018) assess BRI as a shift in the global security architecture.

In my presentation, I will tap on theoretical discussions of the 1970s and 1980s and explore in how far approaches of the World Systems Theory and concepts like the Imperial Chain and the Primacy of Inner Factors can provide us with suitable vocabulary to grasp the dynamics of the BRI and its impact on the countries involved.


Wolfram Schaffar has served as professor for development studies and political science at the University of Vienna between 2010 and 2018. Prior to this position, he worked at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Bonn, at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, Netherlands. His fields of interest are state theory of the Global South, social movements, democratization and de-democratization processes – with a regional focus on East and Southeast Asia.    

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