Limits to Maritime Power: The Politics of Controversy over Chinese Infrastructure Investment
58 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2018
Date Written: August 13, 2018
Foreign involvement in behemoth infrastructure projects around the world sometimes become the locus of political controversy in host countries. This can take the shape of high-profile protests, dramatic denunciations, diplomatic tit-for-tats, outright blockage, and even physical destruction. Less well known, we also find that controversy may be muted or non-existent, providing backing for claims by investor states and international organizations that major infrastructure investment helps fill a huge gap in infrastructure spending, and is welcomed in developing countries. What is the nature of political controversy surrounding foreign direct investment (FDI) in one type of infrastructure – maritime ports that allow entry and exit across sovereign boundaries and borders? Where does political contention surrounding FDI in ports occur, and where does it not? What drives such political contention when it occurs? Are those drivers of contention the same as those identified more generally for FDI of all types? We aim to generate sharper propositions about why we sometimes see contentious politics and other times not by examining cases of six maritime ports in which China has invested as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Djibouti, Piraeus (Greece), São Luís, Maranhão (Brazil), and Darwin (Australia). Focusing on China allows us to control for a single source, and then assess responses to its port investments across cases and over time. From there we briefly examine the applicability of the drivers we identify in five other known cases of maritime infrastructure investment spread across different continents in which China is also a stakeholder. Although expected propositions about national security imperatives, economic competition, and political contestation find an empirical home in the widespread cases, our findings indicate that proxy security competition, civil-military balance as well as the distribution of expected economic gains in favor of home country citizens may be key to keeping contentious politics in check.
Keywords: China, port, maritime, infrastructure, investment, Belt Road Initiative, backlash, contention
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