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High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia

May 04, 2018


Will Doig's book on Chinese expansion is a quick and concise guide through that terrain that will take you just a few hours.

High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia by Will Doig, Columbia Global Reports, 107 pages, Paperback, May 2018, ISBN 9780997722987

A Pan-Asian railway is not a new idea, but it’s one that seems “tantalizingly within reach” today, according to Will Doig’s new book, High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia. An ambition of Western imperialists on the continent over a century ago, it devolved into a tropical fever dream as international conflicts spread and British and French colonizers fled—with many sections of the railroads they intended to link falling in disuse after their departure.

It was an idea that seemed equally out of reach just two decades ago, when it was proposed at the 1995 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit. In fact, Doig opens the book with the story of Shanghai meeting resistance for far less ambitious plans to build a subway in the city. It was just four years earlier, in 1991, that the World Bank chided the city for “opting for such an expensive system as metro without studying all possible alternatives.” In a city of 6.5 million bicycles, the bank suggested that “It is doubtful that such an expensive mode can be core to the urban transport system for passengers.” They went ahead despite the echoes-of-colonialism scolding, and:


Today, over 400 million miles in length, the Shanghai Metro is the world’s longest subway system, carrying more than three billion passengers each year.


China has become known for such colossal, and quickly completed, infrastructure projects—backed by its rapid economic growth. “By 2010,” Doig writes, “China was spending roughly half of its GDP on these types of investments, a greater share than any other country had ever spent before.” It is how, despite having some of the sparsest transportation infrastructure in the world before economic reforms began in 1979, the length of China’s expressways now exceeds that of the United States, and why ten of the largest twenty container ports are now in China. With plans announced in 2015 to build forty new airports in the next five years, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. But it has also built more at home than it really needs, which is a major reason it is looking for other places to build. That ambition, specifically the One Belt One Road initiative—“China’s plan to pull half the globe into its orbit with an interconnected network of roads, rail, airports, and seaports”— is the central topic of High-Speed Empire:


The “Belt” refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, an overland network of infrastructure, supply chains, and trading routes stretching from China to Western Europe. The “Road” is the Twenty-first Century Maritime Silk Road, a web of shipping lanes traversing the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and Mediterranean Sea. Taken together, it’s a scheme of surreal scope, even for China.


And it is creating some surreal landscapes as the initiative manifests itself in real world projects. Doig is a journalist who covers urban development, and those he covers here are often cities rising out of nowhere—sometimes almost literally, as in the case of Forest City, being built atop a string of man made islands between Malaysia and Singapore near a proposed rail hub and development that may one day be the end of a Trans-Asia railway. It is “diplomacy via infrastructure.” And this form of rail diplomacy is not only occurring in the developing world. When China’s two largest state-owned rail equipment makers merged in 2015 to form the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), it became second in size—trailing only GE—in its industry. It has since been contracted to replace the aging, 1970s-era train fleets of Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And China’s investments in the European Union tripled in 2014, a year that saw the country invest in 156 countries and regions worldwide.

But its primary focus is on its own region, and the infrastructure projects that connect it. Its ultimate goal is that:


Ideally, all these molecular enterprises congeal into economic ecosystems, just as America’s infrastructural blitz helped happen in Europe seventy years ago. Of the Marshall Plan’s many ambitions, high on the list was ensuring that Europe was stable and moneyed enough to siphon off America’s residual export glut. Now China has a similar glut, and a similar goal: to urbanize the listless, hazy stretches of soggy farmland that slumber between Southeast Asia’s urban cores.


But there is a dark side to this. There is a frontier town rising along the border of Laos and China that was largely abandoned after it became a “little kingdom of clubs, drugs, casinos, hookers, and crime both petty and organized,” and “corpses with gunshot wounds began turning up in alleys.” The author dubs it “Laos Vegas,” and tells us how China shut it down by ending the visa exemption for Chinese citizens there. Being that the city was built by, and exclusively for, the Chinese, it went so far as to cut the city’s power and cell phone signal when they left. Its redevelopment is currently underway, and ground has been broken there on the first stop outside of China on the railway that is intended to reach Singapore. Debate surrounding Forest City, the settlement atop man made islands near the ultimate destination in Singapore, has turned from whether it would become a Chinese settlement itself to whether it would become a ghost town—when “[p]anicked about its currency reserves, Beijing instructed Chinese citizens buying real estate abroad to keep their money at home instead, shaking property markets from Auckland to L.A.”

Countries like Kenya, Pakistan, Laos, and Sri Lanka have become so indebted to China through the way in which its joint infrastructure projects are financed, that many wonder if it is, in fact, more a case of “debt-trap diplomacy” that China uses to extract concessions from countries that cannot repay their debts. Doig writes that in cities like Boten—or “Laos Vegas”—Laos has in effect “relinquished its national sovereignty in exchange for modernization, giving China jurisdiction over a substantial amount of its land.”

Still, at a time when the United States is retreating from international trade agreements, and our 45th president has pulled the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—which was designed in part to maintain and strengthen American economic influence in the region—China is going all in:  


Encompassing more than sixty countries and over a trillion dollars in spending, the Belt and Road Initiative is an endeavor to make China an epicenter of global commercial activity.


I have never come across a book from Columbia Global Reports that I haven’t liked. The publisher has succeeded in developing a formula that produces something that many have tried but failed to master in the same way—novella-length, on-site, and in-depth reporting on a single issue of global significance. (Haley Sweetland Edwards’ Shadow Courts: The Tribunals That Rule Global Trade has something to add to this discussion, specifically on the topic of TPP and other trade agreements.) Will Doig’s High-Speed Empire, their latest release, is no exception to the rest of the series. The book can feel a bit disjointed at times, but it’s because the developments on the ground have been. One Belt One Road is still more an idea than a concrete plan. China has raced ahead of its neighbors economically in recent decades, and while the “dysfunction, corruption, and poverty” that still plagues its neighbors has allowed it easy access to Chinese-led development, it also makes that development more unpredictable and uneven. If you’re at all interested, let Will Doig be your guide. His tour through that terrain will take you just a few hours.

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