Networks as a methodology: Examining the Sino-Philippine relations and the Belt and Road Initiative through a relational framework

Article by Fernan Talamayan.

Abstract: The article used networks as a methodology since it offers a relational framework for analyzing the regional and global political economy. Using the Sino-Philippine relation and the Belt and Road Initiative as examples, it explained the theoretical considerations, as well as the potential applications of a relational framework in studying territorial disputes, foreign loans, and regional and national policies. It also demonstrated the need for networks in analyzing the interrelationship between different overlapping systems that constitutes structural power and economic relations in East and Southeast Asia. To this end, actors in networks within the said region, their on-going relations, and the structural outcomes of their relations were identified and examined to present the kind of research the approach can generate.

Keywords: Networks, BRI, foreign policies, regional conflicts, South China Sea
Header image “Global Network” by fdecomite is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Tensions between interested parties in the South China Sea increased in recent years as China brazenly intensified its illegal activities in the disputed waters (Trang, 2019). Most noteworthy is the growing conflict between China and the Philippines—despite the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 ruling that favored the Philippine maritime claims, there remain reports of harassment and intimidation of Filipino fishers by the Chinese law enforcement personnel in the said area. A case in 2018, for instance, involves some Chinese Coast Guard personnel, who were caught on video seizing Filipino fishermen’s best catch at the Scarborough Shoal (Mangosing, 2018). In describing how powerless the Filipino fishermen were in resisting seizures by the Chinese, Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen, told the press, “The Chinese Coast Guard personnel board our boats, look at where we store the fish and take the best ones. We cannot do anything because their huge vessels are there” (“Philippines complains,” 2018). In June 2019, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a smaller Filipino fishing boat at Reed Bank, an area within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The Chinese vessel reportedly fled the scene after the incident, leaving the 22 crewmembers of the Philippine vessel struggling in the middle of the sea for hours before being rescued by Vietnamese fishers (Stashwick, 2019). Instead of making China accountable, on both occasions, the Philippine government under President Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the reports and questioned the credence of the Filipino fishers’ accounts of the harassment.

Amidst all these tensions between the Philippines and China, it can be remembered that Manila has been officially included in the political and economic orbit of Beijing after Duterte and Xi signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2018. This MoU included, among others, plans for joint oil and gas exploration in Philippine seas, commitment to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and infrastructure cooperation between the two nations through concessional loans to support Duterte’s key infrastructure projects. In an earlier publication on this website, the author explored several motivations of Duterte’s refusal to uphold the country’s sovereign rights over its EEZ in the South China Sea despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration or PCA’s backing. Using a historical and realist approach to the issue, the author explained why Duterte has been very consistent in appeasing China. It appears that aside from China’s power to dictate the regional order in Southeast Asia, factors such as China’s consistent pressure in the South China Sea, the temptations of Chinese loans and grants that could finance Infrastructure Flagship Programs of Duterte, and the ambiguous U.S. position in the territorial dispute, have led to the realization of such realignment strategy.

Recognizing that there is much to discuss concerning the South China Sea dispute, Duterte’s radical policy shift, and China’s BRI, this piece will argue for an analysis that follows a relational framework. It will address the need to provide a viable methodology for understanding the issue at hand. It will also explain the use of networks as a methodology in analyzing the interrelation of various overlapping networks within East and Southeast Asia, as it constitutes structural power and economic relations within the said region. As Blanchard and Flint, (2017) argued, the only way to understand an actor (and his or her actions) is through the examination of its relation to the actions of other actors (p. 233). Networks, in this sense, become the foundational unit of analysis for the understanding of the regional and global political economy. As such, the employment of a relational framework requires identification of actors in networks, their on-going relations, and the structural outcomes of these relations (Dicken, Kelly, Olds & Yeung, p. 91). Also, through a network methodology it becomes possible to present a nuanced view of China’s power and hegemony, as power, in this case, is understood not as a function of positionality within a network but rather “as the capacity to exercise that is realized only through the process of exercising” (p. 93).

Networks as a methodology: Analyzing actors through a relational framework

Peter Dicken et al. (2001) proposed a relational view of networks as a methodology for analyzing the global economy. They argue that networks as relational processes produce “observable patterns in the global economy” when interpreted empirically “within distinct time- and space-specific contexts.” This emphasis on relations and interconnectedness allows researchers to surpass the “atomistic description” of activities of actors and “meta-individual imaginations of ‘deep’ structures” (p. 91). As such, it does not privilege a single institutional or organizational locus of analysis (Dicken et al., 2001, p. 89).

A result of a relational framework is the rejection of the global and local dualism, in which the macro and micro are dissolved into one. Quoting Latour (1997, p. 5 in Dicken et al.):

The notion of network allows us to dissolve the micro-macro distinction that has plagued social theory from inception. The whole metaphor of scales going from individual, to the nation, through family, extended kin, groups, institutions etc. is replaced by a metaphor of connections. A network is never any bigger than another one, it (is) simply longer or more intensely connected … A network notion implies a deeply different social theory: it has no a priori order relation; it is not tied to the axiological myth of a top and a bottom of a society; it makes absolutely no assumption whether a specific locus is macro or micro- and does not modify the tools to study element ‘a’ or the element ‘b’ … Instead of having to choose between the local and the global view, the notion of networks allows us to think of a global entity—a highly connected one—which remains nevertheless continuously local. (pp. 103-4)

Following Latour’s notion of a network, the dichotomy between the global and local becomes moot, and national boundaries become insignificant (Dicken et al., p. 104) in understanding the global political economy.

Networks as methodology also has its implications for the development of the notion of power. While Foucault (1981) finds power in individual relations (p. 253), power in the context of networks is located in its practice and exercise within a network or space of flows (Castells, 1996). Thus, for instance, when conducting research on the conflict in the South China Sea, the said body of water should not only be treated as a space where capital flows from and to different major metropolitan nodes and financial hubs, but also a space where power is exhibited and enacted by actors such as states, international organizations, and firms. In this light, the actor-network theory (ANT) is also worth noting because power, according to ANT, is the ability to bind together actors and intermediaries into a network (Dicken et al., p. 104). For this reason, using the same example, the South China Sea can be regarded as space where big powers like China manifest their power to set and set regional order.

South China Sea
South China Sea” by Mike is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

A relational framework also opens up a variety of ways to explore further the existing conflicts and competition in the South China Sea. Such an approach makes clear that the deliberation of the South China Sea issue would require an understanding of several actors and their relations within the existing overlapping networks on the sub-national, national, sub-regional, regional, and global levels. For instance, one could look into the possible linkages between prominent Filipino-Chinese business magnates like Dennis Uy (a Filipino-Chinese businessman and a native of Davao City—the hometown and bulwark of Duterte), and politicians like Bong Go (a newly elected Philippine Senator who has Chinese ancestry and whose father and half-brother are linked to a number of multi-million government contracts), Rodrigo Duterte, and China’s Xi Jinping. A relational framework could also help determine links between Xi, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Duterte’s “Build Build Build” program, state policies and laws passed by the Philippine Senate, and the activities of the pro-government media. These actors (and their actions), when plotted and analyzed within a network, could reflect new political and economic realities of the geopolitics in East and Southeast Asia. Alternately, Duterte’s realignment strategy, the South China Sea dispute, the China-U.S.-ASEAN relations, China’s BRI, and Duterte’s domestic infrastructure projects can be pieced together using networks as methodology.

A network methodology also proves useful in analyzing relations between power, hegemony, and the operations of capital within global chains and networks in the case of China’s BRI. The BRI presents an appropriate stage for analyzing China’s activities within the China-ASEAN network. Officially launched in 2013, China’s BRI is a foreign policy that endeavors to transform regional operation of economies through infrastructure investments and loans and trade agreements. Yiping Huang (2016) describes it as “China’s greatest international economic ambition” that is aimed at “stimulating economic development in a vast region covering sub-regions in Asia, Europe, and Africa, which accounts for 64% of [the] world population and 30% of world GDP.” Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter (2014) add that it is a policy that will meet the “expected changes” of Asia’s overtaking of Europe as “the world’s largest trading region” (p. 5).

While China clearly stated that their BRI has political objectives, an element of BRI that makes it worth investigating following a relational framework is its emphasis on connectivity, which is an “integral element of global political and economic change” (Blanchard & Flint, 2017, pp. 223-4). With the BRI’s potential to transform geopolitical landscape through the construction of interrelated infrastructure projects such as ports, highways, railways and pipelines (p. 223), a relational framework helps dissect the rationale behind China’s intervention across the globe, as well as its aggressive stance in accumulating capital and territories and controlling capital flows. Further, by looking into the political economy of the geopolitical projects of China (such as the BRI), the idea that suggests capital accumulation and territorial control as necessary and mutually supporting activities (p. 232) become apparent.

An aspect of the BRI that has intrigued many is its “packaging.” While critics of China argue that the BRI serves Beijing’s geostrategic agenda, the BRI has always been promoted as a “win-win” opportunity for its participants (Thorne & Spevack, 2017, p. 12). As Blanchard and Flint (2017) explain, China’s representations of the BRI and other global actions “consistently deny any attempt to assume the role of hegemonic power;” it is instead represented as a project that would boost world trade and is mutually beneficial to their partner countries (p. 235). However, there are several shreds of evidence that show that despite China’s “reluctance” to claim the said role, China has been active in restructuring not only the regional order in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, but also the flow of capital on a global scale. For instance, China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI), the BRI’s maritime component, covers most of East, Southeast, South, and West Asia and Europe. And because of BRI’s requirement to develop both the hard and soft infrastructure of countries that are directly or indirectly involved, China has played a more prominent role in shaping the national politics of participating countries. This is to conclude or build upon existing free trade agreements that will remove barriers to trade and create the right ecosystem for infrastructure deals and bilateral investment treaties (p. 227).

To conclude, issues surrounding the South China Sea dispute, China’s BRI, and Duterte’s foreign policy shift, show that a network-based methodology allows for a nuanced reading of power; that instead of perceiving it as a mere function of positionality, power is conceived as a practice within a network (Dicken et al., p. 93). Following a relational framework, China’s activities in the region could be perceived not only as manifestations of the country’s global economic interests but also of its capacity to exercise power over other actors. China’s rise as a hegemon could be observed through its implementation of the BRI or its diplomatic and military actions in the South China Sea. Through a network-based approach, the “Chinese bandwagon” phenomenon too, can be explained as it shows China’s capacity to bind together actors in Southeast Asia to form and lead the China-ASEAN network. Furthermore, placing Duterte’s policy shift in a relational framework provides a clearer perspective on matters concerning its connections with China’s BRI and the economic interests of some Filipino-Chinese business moguls.


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