Christina Larson reviews High Speed Empire by Will Doig
During a smoggy January week this year in New Delhi, I attended the third annual Raisina Dialogue – a coming-out party of sorts for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s growing foreign-policy ambitions, packed with panel discussions that cast a wary eye toward China. There weren’t many speakers from mainland China among the hundreds of attendees mingling in luxurious ballrooms at the Taj Mahal hotel, but the question of Beijing’s rising influence across Asia loomed. On one panel, the leaders of four major navies – the US, Japan, Australia and India – discussed how to respond to this common rival. Another panel asked what perilous strings were attached to new continental infrastructure-funding schemes, a clear reference to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
Called ‘One Belt, One Road’ in Chinese (一带一路), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a comically Chinglish phrase. But having put it out as the official translation, China’s propaganda authorities have stuck with it. The “belt” refers to an effort to connect overland trading routes and supply chains from China into Central Asia and Europe, roughly along the path of the historic Silk Road caravans (although to be precise, there never was a single “Silk Road” route). The “road,” more confusingly, refers to network of shipping lanes that Beijing wants to control and connect, stretching from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and beyond to the Persian Gulf. Contrary to Chinese propaganda claims, there is no ancient precedent for what Beijing dubs the “21st century maritime silk road.”
In the case of both the economic belt and the maritime road, lines of credit are available to help poorer nations build infrastructure projects – from railways and roads, to ports – that otherwise have struggled to get off the ground. China is the powerful creditor, with the ability to take control of indebted projects, as happened recently in a Sri Lankan port. The port of Hambantota, financed with Chinese loans, opened in 2010, but proved a financial flop, with its annual operating expenses nearly equalling revenue in 2016. Struggling to pay back loans to Chinese firms, in 2017 the government of Sri Lanka handed over the port to China in a 99-year-lease, a strategic asset in the Bay of Bengal.
Journalist Will Doig has written a short book for a new publisher, Columbia Global Reports, exploring what the Pan-Asia Railway, a proposed route between Kunming and Singapore and one of the projects under the vast umbrella of BRI, looks like to those on the ground. In researching High Speed Empire: China Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia, Doig traveled across Southeast Asia – now a battleground between Chinese and Indian influence – speaking with Laotian taxi drivers, Malaysian politicians, and Singaporean pundits, to discover local sentiments about the pros and cons of accepting Chinese money. The dream of building a railway connecting China to Singapore has existed for more than a century, and was first conjured up during the days of European colonial governments in Southeast Asia. The idea is still only theoretical, but various legs that could connect the railway line are already underway, in fits and starts, thanks to Chinese loans.
“I have an equation to measure how fucked your country is in its relationship to China”
Some of Doig’s interviewees were grateful for the new roads, rail depots, and roadside casinos, complaining that their own governments have been too crooked or incompetent to finance these basic infrastructure upgrades. “All of us know how corrupt the government is,” said a taxi driver who ferried Doig through Laos’ capital city, Vientiane. Others were more skeptical of China’s intentions. One of the most blunt assessments in the book comes from author and foreign-affairs speaker Parag Khanna, who sat down with Doig at a faux art-deco bar in Singapore. “I have an equation I use to measure how fucked your country is in its relationship to China,” Khanna said. “Your numerator is your debt to China, and your denominator is your total outstanding debt. The result is the share of your country’s debt owed to China.” Divide the latter by the former, and Doig summarizes the formula: “The higher your number, the more you’re ‘fucked.’”
High Speed Empire is a short book (the publisher bills the series as “novella”-like in length), which reads like an extended travelogue. Doig, who previously wrote about urbanization for American news sites, including Salon and the Daily Beast, writes earnestly as a relatively new traveler to Asia. It’s hard to write a definitive book on such a work in progress as the Pan-Asia Railway, which may or may not ever be completed. Yet Doig provides a useful introduction to China-funded construction in Southeast Asia – a “before” snapshot, the meaning of which we’ll know more fully once we’ve seen the “after.” That is an important contribution indeed. ∎