Symposium Concept Note


The Belt and Road Initiative was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2013, and in the past 5 years, there have been momentous shifts on the global stage. With the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, analysts and pundits have been looking to China to lead the international community on climate action. At the same time, the Belt and Road Initiative, estimated to include US$900 billion worth of infrastructure investment across Eurasia, Africa and Latin America in railways, ports, and special economic zones, which presents major risks and opportunities in relation to sustainable development and environmental conservation.

Western media reports have presented narratives of Chinese neo-colonialism and extractive commercial practices, but often neglect to consider local views on Chinese investment, both positive and negative, in investment countries across the Global South. In response to widespread criticism and public opposition, the Chinese government has taken steps to increase regulation of the adverse social and environmental impacts of Chinese investment in other countries, specifically releasing the Guiding Opinion on Promoting the Construction of a Green ‘Belt and Road’ in April 2017. Meanwhile, the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China’s own State International Cooperation and Development Agency represent major strides towards increasing China’s involvement in international governance.

The Chinese government has worked hard to present a less threatening posture on the world stage, but its claims of win-win situations and mutual prosperity are not always guaranteed. Reports of grievances and abuses related to Chinese-managed investment projects continue to crop up around the world, from mining in Myanmar to railways in Kenya - it is necessary to question who wins and who loses, disaggregating GDP figures into impacts felt on the ground.

Portrayals of China as a climate leader for investing most heavily in renewable energies also contrast sharply with continued Chinese investment into fossil-fuel industries in developing countries. For better or for worse, China’s economic and geopolitical rise will have massive consequences for the global environment - and it is necessary to unpack the economic, cultural and political dimensions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, drawing links between diverse local contexts and an increasingly globalized China.

Conference Objectives:

Moving beyond clichéd “China threat” narratives, this symposium is intended to facilitate open conversations about the challenges and opportunities that the Belt and Road will bring to practitioners and scholars in the environmental field, from biodiversity conservation to sustainable finance, and how these infrastructure projects and associated economies impact society and the landscape.

In the interests of bringing a topic of paramount importance to the attention of the American environmental field and the international development community, this Symposium is aimed at providing a space for critical but constructive discussions about the international impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and efforts to improve environmental and social governance of China’s foreign investment.

We hope a diverse range of voices and perspectives will be represented in this forum, from advocacy organizations and universities to think tanks and international finance institutions, and we aim to appeal to a broad audience of China scholars, conservation practitioners, policy advisors, undergraduate and graduate students alike.