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Sovereign anxiety in Myanmar: an emotional geopolitics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Using the concept of “sovereign anxiety”, researchers have articulated the unease experienced by communities in Myanmar as the emotional geopolitics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative manifest through its material infrastructures.

Bobby Farnan / Published on 4 April 2023

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Mostafanezhad, M., Farnan, R. A., & Loong, S. (2022). Sovereign anxiety in Myanmar: An emotional geopolitics of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Transactions - Institute of British Geographers (1965), 48(1), 132–148.

Since its announcement in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has received a mixed reception from the international community. As part of this global project, in 2018 the Chinese and Burmese governments formalised cooperation on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which encompasses several infrastructure projects in Myanmar.

A graffitied rock near the contested site of the Myitsone dam. Photo: Bobby Farnan / SEI

Using 35 qualitative interviews with Burmese political and civil actors from 2018-2019, the authors explored the particularities of anxieties triggered by CMEC projects in Yangon, Mandalay and Kyaukphyu. To do this, they developed the term “sovereign anxiety”: a “generalised condition of unease over the security of one’s political community”.

In Myanmar, sovereign anxiety over the BRI is framed by a lack of transparency over Chinese infrastructural projects and concerns around the possibility of insidious motives for the CMEC. To manage their anxiety, actors attach it to specific referents such as relations, roads and resources, thereby generating fear. When converting anxiety into fear, actors also drew on personal biographies and social histories, including Myanmar’s history of military rule and resource exploitation.

By placing emotional geopolitics in conversation with infrastructure debates, the paper demonstrated how a focus on sovereign anxiety and fear surrounding infrastructure developments offers researchers an opportunity to deepen their understanding of infrastructural politics – within and beyond Myanmar.

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SEI author

Bobby Farnan

Research Associate

SEI York

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