High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia
by Will Doig
Columbia Global Reports, 107 pp.
Over the past year, Chinese officials reportedly have been surprised by how quickly the Trump administration has undermined U.S. influence in East Asia, creating a leadership void that could potentially be filled--by China. But even before Trump alienated many Asian partners with a mix of harsh trade rhetoric and a general disinterest in South and Southeast Asia, Beijing had launched a strategy to establish itself as the dominant power in its neighborhood. This strategy coincides with the rise of Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, and a man with a desire to make China, shall we say, great again. While the Xi administration appears to have global ambitions, China has made South and Southeast Asia its current top priorities. Its efforts there could become a template for how Beijing will expand its influence worldwide.
China's strategy for amassing power relies on several pillars. Perhaps the biggest is a series of massive new infrastructure investment programs, first rolled out in 2013, known together as the Belt and Road Initiative. Through Belt and Road, Beijing provides loans and some grants for enormous networks of physical and communications infrastructure that will connect nearly sixty countries around the globe. When complete, the amount spent on Belt and Road could dwarf the Marshall Plan, according to analyses by ING and PricewaterhouseCoopers. As Will Doig shows in High-Speed Empire, a short but well-told piece of reportage, projects like ports, roads, and high-speed rail could help Beijing dominate its neighborhood--and then, possibly, other parts of the world.
Funding huge infrastructure projects in countries that badly need the money and the construction could certainly be powerful tools of goodwill. Yet the Belt and Road plan, which has inspired awe and some degree of fear among U.S. policymakers and officials, may not be foolproof. The infrastructure gambit contains, within its very structure, seeds of problems that could actually turn countries against Beijing, rather than helping China win the game of influence.
Doig, a journalist who covers urban development and has worked for the Daily Beast, Salon, and other publications, offers a clear-eyed and detailed look at how Beijing's new infrastructure push is emerging on the ground in South and Southeast Asia. In Laos, the smallest economy and sleepiest state in mainland Southeast Asia, Chinese firms are building a high-speed railway through the country, which previously just had a single two-mile train line. In December 2015, Laos's national government threw a massive party to launch the construction, as earth movers dug the first heaps of dirt. Laos expects the railway to be done by 2021; some estimates initially suggested that the construction project will employ 100,000 people.
With the new influx of investment could come a rapid change in Laotian society, which already has been altered by new roads through the country, including many funded by China. Once a highly rural society, with villages often cut off from each other by mountains and inaccessible terrain, Laos is being knit together, a positive shift for some local farmers and others with goods to sell, but...