Graduate Network Catalyzes Research on China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Kickoff event.
Kick-off event for the Riding the Belt and Road network on September 7, 2018

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a mammoth undertaking that seeks to establish a “new Silk Road” linking China with over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Last spring, five Duke graduate students received a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant to establish Riding the Belt and Road. The group aimed to ignite a discussion among students and faculty members on multiple facets of the Belt Road Initiative, with a focus on environmental impacts. Below are excerpts from their report.

Catalyzed by a D-SIGN grant in 2018-2019 and housed at the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Riding the Belt and Road network we built together has ignited discussions among students and faculty members on multiple facets of BRI, including its historical and geopolitical background, financial arrangement, business practices and impacts on environment, energy, and development in general.

Our network complements and extends existing BRI efforts led by faculty members, especially from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, supports students to attend BRI workshop and conferences, and offers the platform for students to present and get feedback for their own research projects related to BRI. Our network leverages the existing website on the Belt and Road Initiative hosted by the website of the Center for International & Global Studies (DUCIGS).

“The purpose of building a network, unlike a research project, is to provide support and create linkages. On a cutting-edge topic like BRI, there are many ongoing research projects across the campus – both at Duke and at DKU, but researchers – graduate students and faculty members alike – do not always have the time and efforts to be connected and to benefit from others’ perspectives. Our network fills this gap and connects the dots.”

Yating Li, Ph.D. student in Environmental Economics

Our network raised awareness and initiated conversations around the BRI issues within the Duke community by providing a platform to share research progress for Duke graduate students and faculty members and by inviting world-renowned researchers to give talks and hold discussions with students.

Mia Bennett.
Mia Bennett

On September 7, over 60 students and faculty members attended our kick-off event. The presenters included Jackson Ewing, Lydia Olander, Elizabeth Losos, Seth Morgan, Sara Mason, Erik Myxter-lino, Xiaolan You, Zainab Qazi, and Yating Li, covering a wide range of perspectives including roads and power plants, ecosystem impact, a framework to understand what leads to greener projects, and the implication of machine learning techniques to identify infrastructure.

With DUCIGS, we cohosted a lunch conversation with Charles Stevens, cofounder of The New Silk Road Project.

We hosted Mia Bennett, Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. She discussed how the BRI can be studied from space using remote sensing, specifically nighttime-light imagery.

With support from the Nicholas Institute, we brought together Ariel BenYishay from the College of William and Mary and Rebecca Ray from Boston University to discuss how we can construct a sustainable future.

“The opportunity to meet Dr. BenYishay and Dr. Ray was particularly beneficial for me and other graduate students who interacted with them. Dr. BenYishay discussed his work with AidData at length and spent time fielding questions from students both during the panel and afterward in an informal graduate student session. This event is one example of the ways in which Riding the Belt and Road was instrumental in helping me form research questions related to sustainable infrastructure and rural development. The network has been a key sounding board as I have explored the data requirements for my research and contributed to policy reports on the impacts of roads on forests.”

Seth Morgan, Ph.D. student in Environmental Policy

In October 2018, the network supported three graduate students to attend the Duke-DKU International Symposium on Environmentally and Socially Responsible Outbound Foreign Direct Investment, hosted at Duke Kunshan University, China. A set of events over five days addressed how to understand and plan for China’s vast increase in infrastructure investment abroad, especially for projects that are part of the BRI.

“My participation at the conferences gave me professional contacts and access to cutting-edge researchers in the field. Furthermore, the opportunity assisted greatly in my master’s project that focused on Chinese state-owned enterprises’ internationalization process in the Belt and Road era.” He adds, “Being a part of Riding the Belt and Road D-SIGN group was one of the main highlights of my graduate school experience as it expanded my intellectual capacity to look at my specific subfield of research interests through the lens of disciplines I had limited exposure to prior.”

Erik Myxter-lino, research assistant at the Nicholas Institute and graduate student at NC State University

Building on the discussion during the October workshop, an international institutional collaboration – Gateway for Sustainable Infrastructure – was proposed by Elizabeth Losos and Lydia Olander from the Nicholas Institute. Our network supported a follow-up workshop on April 17 to further the discussion on areas of collaboration among key participants around the world.

“We could have held a series of seminars and conferences on our own, but involving the graduate students from the Riding the Belt and Road D-SIGN network greatly enhanced our programs in several ways. Most immediately, the D-SIGN group actively promoted the programs and encouraged their classmates to participate. But the group also helped mold our research directions by active involvement in discussions of research and workshop agendas, selection of speakers, and critiques of masters projects. These graduate students were full colleagues in every sense. I look forward to continuing to work with many of them while they are still at Duke and hopefully beyond.”

Elizabeth Losos, Senior Fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

The network supported one group masters project, one individual masters project, and one Ph.D. dissertation chapter.

  • Jiaxin Guo, Mya Nwe, Zainab Qazi, Shuyi Zhou, “Assessing the Environmental Sustainability Potential of BRI Countries under the Five Connectivities Framework”
  • Erik Myxter-lino, “State-owned Enterprises within the Belt and Road Initiative: Conducting the State’s Business or Conducting Business with the State’s Assistance?”
  • Yating Li, “Environmental Impact of Overseas Coal-fired Power Plants Financed by China”

“The BRI network at Duke has been an invaluable source of mentoring for our Master’s Project. Our group focused on assessing the environmental sustainability potential of BRI recipient countries conducive to keeping the BRI projects green vis-à-vis the Chinese overseas investments. In particular, our Master’s Project used China’s Five Connectivities framework to assess the varied capacities of BRI participants as countries with distinct sociopolitical and economic contexts and the subsequent bilateral ties with China. We hope that our project serves as a primary investigation into environmental sustainability assessment of the BRI countries and a stepping-stone for further case studies along different regional corridors.”

Zainab Qazi, Master of Environmental Management student

For the leaders, network participants, and the Duke community, our Riding the Belt and Road Network has been a gateway to understand the multiple facets of the Belt and Road Initiative. Our network’s success in this regard has been driven by the support of faculty members and staff from at least four key institutions: the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Center for International & Global Studies, the Duke University Energy Initiative, and the International Master of Environmental Policy (iMEP) at Duke Kunshan University.

In particular, we are grateful for the guidance and support provided by our faculty mentors: Professors Billy PizerElizabeth LososIndermit GillKathinka Fürst. We would also like to acknowledge research contributions by Fanqi (Vicky) Jia and Yingyu Fu. We are confident that, moving forward, the network we built will continue to facilitate discussions around BRI at Duke, galvanize interests in sustainable infrastructure, and support evidence-based planning of large-scale infrastructure projects.