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Road Diplomacy: International Infrastructure and Ethnography of Geopolitics in 21st Century Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Road Diplomacy (Road Diplomacy: International Infrastructure and Ethnography of Geopolitics in 21st Century Asia)

Reporting period: 2018-06-01 to 2020-05-31

The objective of the project Road Diplomacy: International Infrastructure and Ethnography of Geopolitics in 21st Century Asia is to understand where, why, and to what extent roads are being built between China and South Asia and to untangle the inter-related geopolitical and social impacts of infrastructure development at village, national, and international scales. The project maps road developments throughout the trans-Himalaya and investigates the geopolitical drivers and social impacts of road construction. By combining innovative methods from geography, anthropology, and international relations, I produced new empirical data on infrastructure development in 21st century Asia to illustrate the links between macro geopolitical processes and micro local experiences. Datasets and publications generated by the project can be used to improve interdisciplinary communications for social scientists and between development practitioners, donor agencies, policymakers, and local stakeholders. The research is of relevance to EU citizens because understanding contemporary dynamics between rising powers like China and India provides context on 21st century global politics and will inform decision-making for EU investment and development interventions in Asia.
From June 2018-August 2019, I conducted my research project Road Diplomacy as a Visiting Scientist in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Focusing my research on the instrumentation of infrastructure as a vector for political power in post-disaster environments, I conducted two research trips to Nepal, one research trip to Kyrgyzstan, and convened two workshops in Munich (January 2019 and June 2019) and one workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal (May 2019). I am currently preparing a book monograph from this ongoing project and my prospectus – Infrastructural Power – has been accepted by University of Washington Press for the series: Culture, Place, and Nature. In addition to developing the book project, organizing the workshops, and conducting fieldwork, over the course of my Marie Curie fellowship I also: published two peer-reviewed journal articles, two book reviews, and one research reports; delivered over nineteen papers at academic conferences; submitted six manuscripts for peer-review in academic journals and edited volumes; and coordinated three special issue journals and one edited volume book manuscript.

The MSCA grant period was reduced from 24 months to 15 months because of professional job opportunities presented by my appointment as Assistant Professor of Geographic Science at James Madison University in Virginia, USA. Despite truncating the grant by nine months, I still completed the majority of objectives for the project. Below is a detailed assessment of the progress made on all work packages, with specific outputs (milestones and deliverables) for respective tasks. See attached documents for specific outputs (publications, workshops, conferences, etc.)
I am a human geographer with broad research and teaching interests in the politics of international development. Geographically focused on socio-environmental vulnerabilities in the wider Himalayan region, I am particularly curious how natural disasters, foreign aid, and regional geopolitics converge in the territorialization of state space in mountainous borderlands between Nepal and China. Informed by long-term ethnographic fieldwork in pre- and post-earthquake landscapes across the trans-Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, my research examines tensions between rural mountain communities’ strategies to escape legacies of marginalization and the ways that international development reproduces social hierarchies, despite the best (and worst) of intentions. Today, as already precarious social situations across Nepal are exacerbated by the effects of climate change, populations downstream from the High Asian cryosphere struggle with water insecurity, unstable geologies, and infrastructural collapse. In response to the failure of roads, dams, and other built environments under the weight of severe floods, landslides, and co-seismic events, my research asks how power moves through infrastructure and can be mobilized to both control and empower affected communities in the face of future geophysical crises.

Extending from my MSCA project Road Diplomacy, my current book project, Infrastructural Power, analyzes the ways in which infrastructures like highways and hydroelectric projects are leveraged for political purposes across Asian landscapes. In the case of Himalayan mountain communities for whom state presence has long been marked by its conspicuous absence, international development since 2015 marks a turning point in national development trajectories, with a pivot to international interventions increasingly linked to China and climate risk mitigation. Drawing on my multidisciplinary training in religion and diplomacy, I am committed to outreach, engagement, and collaboration and the engagement of broader publics about the uneven politics of natural disaster and international development in Nepal and the Global South. Over the course of my MSCA grant period, I commenced preliminary collaboration with a six international research teams and I expect to continue working together with these research networks in future years. These research teams include: Infrastructures of Democracy (University of Toronto); Roadwork Asia (University of Zurich); Roads: Politics of Thought (SOAS London University); RIZEAsia (University of Aarhus); Borders, Mobilities, Infrastructures (National University of Singapore); and China Made (University of Colorado Boulder).

Following the MSCA research period and moving from the Himalayan borderlands to rural and urban landscapes across the United States, I am now preparing a second research project that seeks answers to the simple question: what’s the matter with infrastructure in America? Motivated by the problematic gap between routine political promises of improvement and the everyday realities of crumbling national transportation and communication networks, the state of infrastructure in the United States is further threatened by the effects of climate change and poses significant risks to national constituencies. Taking the paradox of global infrastructure development between Asia and America as a point of entry – where infrastructure is, respectively, fast and sensational versus slow and neglected – I will generate knowledge about the ways in which infrastructural promises can be harnessed rather than ignored and in what ways political possibility might be mobilized into material public goods in America. This research endeavor builds from and continues to pursue fundamental questions at the center of my MSCA Road Diplomacy project and I look forward to continued collaboration in research about the politics and pitfalls of international infrastructure development with colleagues in Germany, the EU,