Defense Department Funding Will Enable Princeton Researchers to Study China’s Economic Rise, Effects

Jul 13 2020
By B. Rose Huber
Source Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

The Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC) at Princeton University will explore how countries like China use economic power to pursue their national interests, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The project, which will be led by ESOC Director Jacob N. Shapiro and Co-Director Ethan B. Kapstein, was selected through an annual competition held by the Minerva Research Initiative. ESOC will receive $961,695 over a three-year period.

“Few concepts in international relations and public policy are as under-theorized as ‘influence’,” said Kapstein, who is also a visiting professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. “This project will generate policy-relevant research that provides scholars and public officials with a deeper understanding of how states use economic relations to magnify their political influence.”

“The rapid expansion of China’s overseas investments has contributed to narratives of China’s global dominance, but we need to look at the evidence to see if this is true,” said co-investigator Audrye Wong ’13, Ph.D. ’19, and now a Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “While policymakers have often focused on economic sanctions, China’s Belt and Road Initiative underscores the potential use of economic inducements to gain geopolitical clout.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) provides development finance primarily for infrastructure projects. While seemingly beneficial, the initiative raises red flags in terms of international relations: How are countries using economic power to pursue their interests? And can they be used as a means of coercion?

“One of the enduring questions about BRI is whether it is actually winning China geopolitical influence when it counts,” said Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. “Right now we just don’t know, and what the right response to BRI is depends critically on the answer.”

Through their work, Shapiro, Kapstein, and their collaborators — Wong and Joseph Felter at Stanford’s Hoover Institution — aim to provide the most compelling theoretical and empirical analysis of the political economy of the Belt and Road Initiative yet produced. This will aid U.S. policymakers as they grapple with the long-term implications of Chinese economic expansion.

ESOC, a multi-university network based at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, identifies and compiles a wide range of micro-level data to empower scholarship and to help address challenges related to political violence, ranging from civil war to economic development to misinformation campaigns.

The Minerva Research Initiative supports social science research aimed at improving our basic understanding of security, broadly defined. All supported projects are university-based and unclassified, with the intention that all work be shared widely to support thriving stable and safe communities.