All Aboard China’s Rail­way Am­bi­tions

Global Asia - - BOOK REVIEWS - Re­viewed by John Delury

By now, ev­ery­one (in Asia at least) has heard of the One Belt, One Road Ini­tia­tive. Will Doig ex­plores a lesser-known off­shoot of Bei­jing’s gar­gan­tuan in­fra­struc­ture am­bi­tions: the idea of a Pan-asia Rail­way that would run from Kun­ming, in the Chi­nese south­west, to Sin­ga­pore, link­ing Laos, Thai­land and Malaysia along the way.

Like so much of China’s boom­ing trade and in­vest­ment link­ages around the world, Bei­jing’s “rail­road diplo­macy” is forc­ing South­east Asian coun­tries to con­front a dilemma — is it “safe” to in­vite Chi­nese money in?

Can they pro­tect their “sovereignty and iden­tity” from the reper­cus­sions of bor­row­ing on Chi­nese largesse? These ques­tions rep­re­sent a pro­found his­tor­i­cal irony, given how in the 19th cen­tury the Chi­nese them­selves strug­gled, and ul­ti­mately failed, to man­age the ar­rival of the West’s su­pe­ri­or­ity in wealth and power. Now, “the heavy hand of China” is what South­east Asian lead­ers and publics “both yearn for and fear.”

Doig writes vividly out of his re­port­ing trips to places like Boten, the Chi­nese-built “mini-ma­cau” on the Laos side of their bor­der; Ban­dar Malaysia, a con­tro­ver­sial ter­mi­nus de­vel­op­ment out­side Kuala Lumpur; and For­est City, is­lands built for Chi­nese ex­pats just off Sin­ga­pore. High-speed Em­pire is a short, fast read, but of­fers much food for thought.

‘The heavy hand of China’ is what South­east Asian lead­ers and publics ‘both yearn for and fear.”

High-speed Em­pire: Chi­nese Ex­pan­sion and the Fu­ture of South­east Asia By Will Doig Columbia Global Re­ports, 2018, 107 pages, $14.99 (Pa­per­back)

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