Sustainable development on a global scale (addressing issues such as climate change, migration, and cultural and religious conflicts) has been one of the largest challenges for policymakers at a variety of governmental levels (from the United Nations down to local community) and within academia, across a wide range of disciplines [1
]. In the era of globalization, attention has increasingly been paid (since 2013) to sustainable development within “the Belt and Road” region, which is composed of 66 countries (all nations included are listed in the Table A1
in Appendix A
) and other associated countries.
The current literature on sustainable development within this region has primarily focused on environmental and economic dimensions. Concerning environmental dimensions, empirical studies have reported a negative impact of tourism on “the Belt and Road” ecological environment [3
], “the Belt and Road” initiative may promote permanent environmental degradation. We call for rigorous strategic environmental and social assessments, raising the bar for environmental protection worldwide [6
]. When considering economic dimensions, the relationship between FDI and ecological footprint have been examined. For example, Baloch contends that economic growth, energy consumption, foreign direct investment (FDI), and urbanization pollute the environment by increasing ecological footprint [7
]. In contrast, research concerning the social and cultural dimensions of sustainable development in this region has been limited, and thus these dimensions will be the primary focus of this study.
In addition to the complex economic interactions that characterize this region, an increase in cultural trade has also been identified. For example, the total volume of cultural trade between the 66 countries of the region was shown to increase from 35.67 billion US dollars in 1990 to 689.67 billion US dollars in 2016, with an average annual growth of 12.1% (UN Comtrade Database). In 2016, the distribution of such cultural trades was shown to demonstrate high spatial variation along “the Belt and Road”, where East Asia (11 countries) was found to account for 57.9% of the total cultural trade volume. As for the remainder, West Asia (18 countries) accounted for 17.1%, Central and Eastern Europe (16 countries) accounted for 4.6%, the Commonwealth of the Independent States (7 countries) accounted for 6.3%, South Asia (8 countries) accounted for 12.7%, and Central Asia (5 countries) accounted for 1.4%. Using a network perspective, this study aims to identify the roles of these countries in temporal cultural trading, and how cultural trading contributes to socio-cultural sustainability in this region. After the introduction, Section 2
presents a review of the literature that covers relevant concepts and theories concerning cultural trade networks and cultural sustainability. Section 3
explains the network analysis methods. Section 4
reports the analytical results and interpretations, which is followed by discussions in Section 5
and conclusions in Section 6
The SNA results enable the understanding of cultural trade network characteristics in a dynamic way. In the period 1990–2016, the increasing trade of diverse cultural products, including books, movies, TV shows, performing arts, animation, online games, and creative design, was shown to promote cultural and knowledge exchange between all countries in the region, as demanded by the different socio-cultural groups [55
]. To conceptualize the evolution of such networks, changes of key nodes and cultural corridors were analyzed and presented for the six periods in Figure 9
. Here, a cultural corridor is defined as a set of key nodes linked topologically.
In 1990, cultural trade in the region was concentrated mainly in Southeast Asia. The key nodes in this Southeast Asian cultural circle were Singapore and Thailand; however, cultural corridors with other regions were not found to be fully formed. In 1995, a new Eastern European cultural circle had been formed, with Poland and the Czech Republic representing the key nodes. This cultural circle, and the existing Southeast Asian cultural circle, was found to be connected and framed the first cultural corridor: “Thailand–Poland”. In 2000, a new East Asian cultural circle was formed, with China as the key node. Southeast Asian cultural circles were found to be composed of two key nodes; Singapore and Thailand, same as in timeframe 1990–1995. However, a different Eastern European cultural circle was found, where Greece and Russia represented the key nodes. Such cultural circles have framed a stable “golden triangle”, which comprise of three cultural corridors; “Singapore–China”, “Singapore–Greece”, and “China–Russia”. These cultural trade networks have since been found to be in continuous growth and development up until 2016. Here, with increasingly active cultural trade, eight cultural corridors have been formed around the key nodes of Singapore, China, Russia, and Greece. These cultural corridors are “Singapore–China”, “Singapore–Russia”, “Russia–China“, “Thailand–India“, “Greece–Russia”, “India–China“, “India–United Arab Emirates”, and “United Arab Emirates–Thailand” (for the details, see Table A5
). Here, the corridors were found to be connected to a more stable “quadrilateral”. Overall, it has been shown that between 1990 and 2016 cultural corridors that connect Asia and Europe have been subject to growing expansion.
The evolution of cultural corridors between 1990 and 2016 has been conceptualized in Figure 10
, with the four diagrams (A→B→C→D) corresponding to 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2016, respectively.
The process of such evolution has been to be dominated by the outward expansion of key nodes and cultural circles and the gradual formation of cultural corridors following the spatial pattern of a point-line-polygon. Those countries with high node strength were shown to become key nodes in cultural trade networks. These key nodes were then found to collate to form cultural corridors. With the increasing number of cultural corridors, the pattern of cultural trade networks has been found to change significantly, gradually forming multi-level cultural circles. Individual countries were found to play a varied role in such multi-level networks, which reflects increasing cultural diversity in this region.
As indicated by Figure 9
, the pattern of cultural corridors is highly affected by geographical location or proximity and by cultural endowment. Indeed, closer key nodes were found to connect more easily into a cultural corridor than distant nodes. Likewise, similar cultural circles were found to form cultural corridors more easily.
Further, cultural diversity leads to the diversity of cultural products, such as film, music, book, TV series, artwork, painting, and so on, different cultural products have different audiences, and they have different effects on the sustainable development of culture. Particularly with the rapid development of new media, the path and speed of cultural communication have undergone tremendous changes. In the case of film, film is not only a cultural product, but also a medium for cultural communication. Film combines three powerful elements: image, sound, and context, and communicates with the audiences in other regions or countries [56
]. Therefore, cultural sustainable development cannot be achieved by cultural protection through isolation, but it should involve strengthening trade in cultural products between countries, regions, and globally. Through cultural communication, more people can understand national cultures, and the sustainable development of cultural heritage can be achieved.
In addition, cultural sustainability is an emerging area of research. Until recently, the understanding of culture within the framework of sustainable development has remained vague. Soini and Birkeland found that the scientific discourse on cultural sustainability was organized around seven storylines: heritage, vitality, economic viability, diversity, locality, eco-cultural resilience, and eco-cultural civilization [31
]. Other scholars believe that cultural sustainability also contains the aspect of social capital [57
] or culturally sustainable entrepreneurship [30
]. However, scholars have little research on the trade network of cultural products. We believe that cultural sustainability is not only encompassed within those aspects we have mentioned above, but also includes cultural trade sustainability. Thus, cultural sustainability can be defined as every country having its own cultural “circles of friends”, while different cultural “circles of friends” are linked by “cultural corridors”, and all people work together to build a “community of shared culture for mankind”. Therefore, to some extent, this study may provide a new perspective for the sustainable development of culture and enriches the concept of cultural sustainability.
This paper employed an empirical study on the structural characteristics of the trade network of cultural products within ‘the Belt and the Road’ region. To do this, a social network analysis (SNA) method was used along with a dynamic perspective. From the analytical results, the following conclusions were drawn.
First, cultural trade networks along “the Belt and Road” have become more and more balanced between 1990 and 2016. Thus, the survivability of “the Belt and Road” cultural trade network can be said to be more stable, especially when considering the contributions of China, India, Russia, and Thailand.
Second, the roles of each county within the network has changed significantly over the timeframe analyzed due to varied levels of economic development, evolving trade agreements, and unpredictable war and financial crises [58
]. In the early period (e.g., 1990), countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Greece, which had advantageous transport (road and sea) infrastructure, were found to have an attractive cultural heritage and a high-level economic growth [59
] and thus played an important role in the development of the cultural trade network. However, with rapid economic development and increasing improvements to transportation, China, Russia, and India (three “BRIC” countries; BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, and China) have become key nodes of cultural corridors since 2000. The conceptualized model of point-line-polygon (Figure 10
) reflects the spatial and temporal processes of stable cultural trade networking between Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, and Eastern Europe. Here, the healthy competition between the 66 countries has been shown to be conducive to the sustainable development of cultural trade [60
The evolution of the cultural trade network has seen the development of cultural exchanges between all 66 countries, from the early state of “stragglers and disbanded soldiers” to the gradual creation of six primary “circles of friends”. Geographical proximity, religious beliefs, traditional customs, language, nationality, and race have all contributed to the formation of such “circle of friends”. Furthermore, the effects of radiation and spillover on neighboring regions have also been demonstrated. For example, as the second largest economy body and one of four ancient civilizations, China has been found to have developed large-scale cultural trading partnerships and has generated region-wide spatial and cultural influences [61
However, current cultural trade has been found to be dominated still by large-sized countries (e.g., China, Russia, and India). Where small-sized countries (e.g., Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Hungary, and Bulgaria), despite possessing unique cultures and a wealth of products, have been found to be excluded, to some degree, from the cultural corridors. This is due to their current levels of economic development, transport linkages, and international relationships [62
]. To promote socio-cultural sustainability within the region, small “circles of friends” formed by similar cultures could be further expanded and enlarged to achieve cultural diversity along the cultural corridors. It has been suggested that small circles are beneficial to the inheritance and protection of local and traditional cultures. This empirical study has confirmed that social network analysis can be used to enable the detection of both networking patterns and evolution processes. This study is novel in the analysis of cultural trade from a network perspective, and in the development of such point-line-polygon models to represent the evolution of cultural trade networks. Furthermore, this study adds value by addressing the socio-cultural sustainability contribution and challenges from cultural trade within “the Belt and Road” region, thus, addressing cultural sustainability from an international level.
Challenges that could be addressed in future work include the following: Firstly, the expansion of the methodology to integrate the diversity of cultural products, competition, and complementarity into the analysis to better understand the impacts of trading on cultural diversity. By comparing cultural trade and general trade during the period 2005–2016, we find that the average growth rate of cultural trade and general trade were 13.6% and 17.2% (UN Comtrade Database), the proportion of cultural trade in general trade decreased from 18.1% to 8.1% (UN Comtrade Database), it means that although cultural trade is growing rapidly, cultural trade diverges from general trade. In the future, we may try to compare the evolution of cultural trade and general trade networks and disclose the reason for this divergence. Secondly, the effects of cultural distance and spatial (or transport) distance could be compared to reveal the spatial and cultural strategies required to develop such networks and corridors. Thirdly, this study mainly used social networks to explore the evolution of cultural trade networks in “the Belt and Road”, but the temporal shortest path, temporal betweenness, and betweenness preferences have not been considered. Some other scholars present the emergent field of temporal networks, and discuss methods for analyzing topological, temporal structure, and dynamic temporal network [64
]. Although the temporal network method is mainly used to study the spread of infectious disease, opinions, and rumors in social networks; information packets in computer networks; various types of signaling in biology, and more [66
], such studies suggest that there is great potential for this method to be applied to cultural trade networks. Therefore, in the future we may use the temporal network method to analyze the dynamics of cultural trade networks by considering temporal dependence, and it could help understand the political, social and economic processes shaping the network patterns.