November 23, 2021

Laos is among the Southeast Asian countries that had engaged China on infrastructure cooperation well before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013. Subsequently, Laos has embraced the BRI openly and receptively. Laos's most expensive and controversial project, the Vientiane-Boten railway, is China's signature BRI venture in Laos. The country's BRI engagement also includes special economic zones and unequal partnerships in hydropower, mining, and agricultural projects. To elucidate why Laos embraces the BRI despite the controversies and concerns surrounding the Beijing-backed projects, this essay uses an asymmetry-authority framework to argue that, while power asymmetry entails apprehensions, the Lao ruling elites' political needs to preserve and advance their authority led them to downplay anxieties and instead highlight the benefits of the China-financed projects. The rail venture, in particular, aims to transform Laos from a landlocked country to a "land-linked" one, which will extend connectivity, increase trade, and attract investment, thus enhancing and legitimizing the elites' rule.

Cheng-Chwee Kuik CWP Malaysia China C&WP

Dr. Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate professor at the Strategic Studies and International Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), and concurrently an associate fellow at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya (UM). He is the co-founder and co-convener of the East Asian International Relations (EAIR) Caucus, a research platform for exchange, engagement, and empowerment among foreign affairs professionals in Malaysia. Dr. Kuik is an adjunct lecturer at the Malaysian Armed Forces Defense College (under Ministry of Defense) and the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (under Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Previously he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and the World” Program (CWP) and a visiting research fellow at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Kuik’s research concentrates on weaker states’ foreign policy behavior, state alignment choices, regional multilateralism, East Asian security, China-ASEAN relations, and Malaysia’s external policy. His publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Journal of Contemporary ChinaContemporary Southeast AsiaChinese Journal of International PoliticsAsian SecurityChina: An International JournalAsian Politics and PolicyEast Asian PolicyShijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, as well as edited books. Cheng-Chwee’s essay “The Essence of Hedging” was awarded the biennial 2009 Michael Leifer Memorial Prize by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for the best article published in any of the three ISEAS journals. He is a co-editor (with Alice Ba and Sueo Sudo) of Institutionalizing East Asia: Mapping and Reconfiguring Regional Cooperation (Routledge 2016). His current projects include: hedging in international relations, ASEAN states’ responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (with Lee Jones), and politics of China-related railroad projects in Southeast Asia (with David Lampton and Selina Ho). Cheng-Chwee serves on the editorial boards/ committee of Contemporary Southeast AsiaAustralian Journal of International AffairsAsian Perspective, and Routledge’s “IR Theory and Practice in Asia” Book Series. He holds an M.Litt. from the University of St. Andrews, and a PhD

Photo Credit: By Appenzeller/Hecher/Sack - Infrastrukturatlas 2020, CC BY 4.0,