Interview with Yixian Sun on the implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for global and local environmental politics.

In this interview with Yixian Sun, we discuss the research and findings of the recent Symposium in Environmental Politics: ‘Environmental governance of China’s Belt and Road Initiative’, co-edited with Joanna I. Lewis & Johannes Urpelainen.

Congratulations on the Symposium! How did this set of articles come together?

Thank you! I am thrilled to see the publication of this special symposium. The project has actually gone through a long journey. It started as a panel that I organised for the International Studies Association’s Annual Convention in 2021. My initial motivation was to gather cutting-edge research on the environmental governance of China’s overseas engagement, and subsequently build a community to improve understanding of China’s global influence in the field of environmental politics.

In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a board policy framework to increase connectivity between China and the rest of the world. This marks a new era of China’s overseas engagement with massive infrastructure investments in the Global South. While the BRI has become subject of criticisms for large environmental impacts of many projects due to their untransparent governance processes. However, most of the existing research on the BRI focus on geopolitical and to a less extent economic implications of China’s growing overseas activities with very little attention to the impacts of Chinese activities on the environment and sustainable development in host countries.  As a result, there has been a critical knowledge gap on how the environmental impacts of China-supported infrastructure development are managed in different contexts. In the meantime, over the last decade the Chinese government have made increasing efforts to promote green development in the BRI. But very little research has carefully investigated relevant policy changes and its implications for environmental governance in China and at the transnational and global levels.

As a scholar of environmental politics with expertise on China and the Global South, I felt the need to bridge this research gap in order to advance our understanding about China’s influence on environmental politics across the globe. I was lucky enough to find a group of fellow researchers in our community of environmental politics doing interesting work in this area, so decided to use this symposium as an opportunity to share our knowledge and identify areas for future research. I am grateful for the support of my co-guest editors and the dedication of all our contributors. Without their work, this special symposium would not be possible.

Reading these articles, what stands out to you as a key intervention that the Symposium is making?

The articles in our symposium focus on two important, but underexplored questions to shed light on the environmental governance of China’s overseas engagement. The first question is what explains varying environmental impacts of Chinese projects across different host contexts. In addressing this question, we call for attention to the interactions of Chinese and host country actors and institutions and argue that it is such dynamic interactions that have led to different policy processes in designing and implementing Chinese overseas projects. Through comparative case studies of key host countries of Chinese infrastructure investment in Asia (e.g., Indonesia and Pakistan) and Africa (e.g., Ethiopia and South Africa), our symposium shows that the system governing environmental impacts of the BRI is very complex and varies significantly across host contexts due to involvement of both Chinese and local actors.

The second question is on new initiatives developed by China to green the BRI. In this respect, we are especially interested in the motivations of various Chinese actors in promoting green development in overseas activities, the mechanisms through which different initiatives seek to govern the BRI and their impacts. Papers in our symposium have examined a range of nascent efforts on environmental governance led by different Chinese actors including the BRI International Green Development Coalition, Green Investment Principles for the BRI, and China’s policy announced in 2021 to end support for overseas coal projects. These studies provide important insights into the rise and evolution of China’s effort to reduce environmental impacts of its overseas engagement, and therefore advance understanding of opportunities as well as challenges for China to position itself as a new global leader of environmental governance through building a green BRI. By tackling these critical questions, our symposium brings a lens of environmental politics to the centre of the BRI research, and we hope it can encourage more fine-grained analysis of the political processes through which China’s overseas engagement impact the environment and sustainable development across the globe.

In the Introduction to the Symposium, you and your co-authors propose a research agenda, arguing for the importance of understanding the environmental governance system for China’s overseas engagement. Why is this so important do you think?

The BRI generated a new wave of global infrastructure development in the last ten years. In this process, China became the world’s large provider of development finance and also significantly reshaped the relevant global governance system. Despite challenging economic and geopolitical situations since COVID-19, China seems determined to continue the BRI and is still likely to maintain a leading position in international development in in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, green development has been featured by Beijing as a key priority in the BRI and new policy directions began to emerge to increase China’s support for sustainability transitions in host countries such as taking a more selective approach to fund high-quality small projects such as renewable energy, which are environmentally sustainable while also improving people’s livelihoods. However, it remains to be seen to what extent China’s overseas engagement can be transformed and how China is going to walk the talk to provide more support for sustainable development in the developing world.

Therefore, it is more important than ever to advance research on environmental politics around China’s overseas activities. This area of research is especially needed in the context of growing tensions between China and the US where discussions on China’s global influence has become increasingly politicised without being based on evidence. However, a successful sustainability transition would not be possible without the participation of China who is now a new global power.  To better understand China’s influence on global sustainability transition, we propose a new research agenda focusing on the dynamism of the system governing environmental impacts of Chinese overseas engagement. This agenda requires us to assess China’s changing policy and practices by considering pressure of developed countries who compete with China as financiers of development projects, influence of actors with heterogenous interests in host countries and also institutional evolution and feedback of governance initiatives led by various Chinese actors. Only by recognising and investigating the complexity of this governance system, we can understand opportunities as well as risks that Chinese overseas engagement brings for sustainable development across developing countries.

Finally, are you planning any more research on this topic? What’s your next direction?

Absolutely. We are still in a very early stage to understand environmental impacts of China’s global engagement, so more research is needed in this area especially from perspectives of researchers in developing countries that host Chinese development projects. I am highly committed to bridging this knowledge gap with the ultimate goal to advance international cooperation with China for sustainable development in the Global South. Fortunately, I have been recently awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship to develop a large and long-term research programme on sustainability governance of China’s overseas infrastructure investments. In the next four years, I will work with local researchers to conduct in-depth research in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh through mixed methods on the impacts of Chinese infrastructure projects on the environment and local communities. I will also work with policy practitioners in these countries to identify possible pathways to promoting sustainable investments. Beyond academic research, I will pursue policy impact by directly engaging with relevant stakeholders in China and host countries and supporting them to develop new strategies for sustainability transition. This grant will also give me an opportunity to build a global and multidisciplinary knowledge community to advance research on the environmental implications of global China and everyone is welcome to join. We will organise a range of activities including webinars and conferences and also offer visiting fellowships for early-career researchers. For people who is interested in this area, please stay tuned!

Bio: Yixian Sun is an associate professor in International Development at the University of Bath. His research interests include transnational governance, environmental politics and sustainable development, with a focus on emerging economies. His work explains the changing role of China in global environmental governance, including sustainability transitions within China as well as sustainability impacts of China’s overseas engagement. He is the author of the book Certifying China: The Rise and Limits of Transnational Sustainability Governance in Emerging Economies published by the MIT Press in 2022 and has published over 20 research articles in high-impact journals including Science, Nature Sustainability, Nature Food, Global Environmental Change, and Global Environmental Politics. Besides his academic work, Yixian is a member of the Expert Peer Review Group for the UN-supported ‘Race to Zero’ campaign.

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