China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes infrastructure projects around the world on such an enormous scale that it can produce either significant benefits or damaging consequences for tens of millions of people, depending on how well these projects are designed, financed, executed, and operated. Many project host countries have vulnerable populations whose voices and concerns may be overlooked and who may suffer disproportionately from problems with one or more BRI projects. Furthermore, Chinese financiers, developers, and contractors may be unfamiliar with the local environment, language, or culture.
In 2019, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report, Navigating the Belt and Road Initiative, which identified problems and advanced recommendations aimed at helping BRI projects yield beneficial and sustainable outcomes. ASPI found that many BRI projects did not adequately address land rights, community health and safety (H&S), gender equity, labor standards, and other important issues. Research also showed that clear and accessible information about BRI projects — and their impacts — was not being provided to the affected communities and that formal mechanisms were not created to allow local people to seek redress for problems resulting from these projects. ASPI’s report made two key recommendations: first, that BRI project planners should conduct thorough social impact assessments (SIAs), and second, that community members and host country stakeholders should be informed, consulted, and engaged throughout the life cycle of each infrastructure project. This toolkit is designed to help both local populations in and around BRI project areas and Chinese contractors, developers, and financiers better handle these challenges and implement the recommendations.
ASPI conducted research across Southeast and South Asia, with a particular focus on Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia. These three countries host a variety of large-scale BRI projects; they were among the first states to join the initiative in 2013, and they are in different stages of economic development. Although the toolkit contains some country-specific information and will be available in the national languages of these three countries, it is meant to be useful to communities affected by BRI projects elsewhere in Asia and around the world. The Chinese (Simplified) version is meant to assist Chinese officials, financiers, developers, and contractors involved in BRI projects, particularly in Southeast Asia.
In undertaking this research, ASPI formed an Advisory Group of prominent Chinese and other international experts with experience in tracking overseas investment, developing environmental and social policies, creating strategies to facilitate stakeholder engagement, and advocating for inclusive and sustainable development as well as the rights and needs of local communities. ASPI also teamed up with nongovernmental organization (NGO) development partners in several countries in Southeast and South Asia that helped conduct fieldwork and organize stakeholder interviews and roundtables.
ASPI’s goal is for this toolkit to be used by local stakeholders in areas where BRI projects are planned, underway, or newly completed to better comprehend the relevant processes, procedures, and people involved. Better understanding by all stakeholders can prevent problems and reduce friction. Additionally, the toolkit may be used to learn about Chinese and international best practices and standards, as well as to identify the roles and responsibilities of various agencies involved in any given BRI project. The toolkit outlines actionable steps that local stakeholders and groups can take to ask questions, share ideas, engage in public advocacy, pursue redress for grievances, and safeguard communities’ interests.
For Chinese users of the toolkit, we explain the elements of environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) and stakeholder engagement; outline relevant international and Chinese standards and practices; offer specific actionable steps that Chinese companies, financiers, and other actors can take; and describe how these measures would help de-risk infrastructure projects, avoid problems, and lead to better outcomes.
For more information or specific questions about the toolkit, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel R. Russel is Vice President for International Security and Diplomacy at ASPI. Previously, he served as a Diplomat-in-Residence and Senior Fellow with ASPI for a one-year term. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service at the U.S. Department of State, he most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs, where he helped formulate President Obama’s strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, including efforts to strengthen alliances, deepen U.S. engagement with multilateral organizations, and expand cooperation with emerging powers in the region. Among his many roles at the Department of State, he served as Director of the Office of Japanese Affairs and U.S. Consul General in Osaka-Kobe.
Blake H. Berger is Associate Director at ASPI. Prior to joining ASPI, he was a Research Associate at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Blake’s research interests include The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Belt and Road Initiative, regional integration, international relations, political economy, U.S. foreign policy toward East and Southeast Asia, and international trade policy. Blake has a master’s degree in Comparative Politics with a focus on Southeast Asia from American University’s School of International Service and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Jacinta Y. Chen is a Program Assistant at ASPI. In this capacity, she works with ASPI Vice President Daniel Russel and Associate Director Blake Berger on projects related to the BRI. Most recently, she researched best practices for sustainable infrastructure and made significant contributions to the development of ASPI’s first digital toolkit. Prior to this role, she served as a Research Intern at ASPI and as a Student Researcher for the Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles. Jacinta holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Politics from Pomona College and will attend the University of Cambridge as a Downing-Pomona Scholar in Fall 2022.
This project was made possible with support from the Ford Foundation.