“High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia” by Will Doig


China has developed a reputation for confounding naysayers. Will Doig starts High-Speed Empire with an anecdote of the World Bank castigating Shanghai in 1991 for deciding to build a Metro; the suggestion was that maybe focusing on infrastructure for bicycles might be a better use of resources.

As targets go, the World Bank is pretty big. But still, the Shanghai Metro has outstripped all projections, even its own:


It beat its own deadline by decades. Today, over 400 miles in length, the Shanghai Metro is the world’s longest subway system, carrying more than three billion passengers each year.


Doig quickly pivots to the Pan-Asia Railway project, first proposed at the 1995 ASEAN Summit as a region-wide network of rail connections running from Kunming to Singapore, since folded in to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

The “high-speed” in the title is a double-entendre reference to China’s regional rail ambitions, but also the speed at which all this change is now coming. But High-Speed Empire isn’t actually a book about (still largely non-existent) trains; instead, Doig follows the route of the proposed track to discuss China’s penetration of Southeast Asia. The subtitle “Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia” is more accurate.

Doig is an engaging writer with a keen eye for the human interest angle and the clever turn of phrase.

High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia by Will Doig (Columbia Global Reports, May 2018)
High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia by Will Doig (Columbia Global Reports, May 2018)

“High-Speed” also describes the experience of consuming this latest Asian entry in Columbia Global Reports’ collection of long-form (“novella-length”) journalism titles. The book has just 99 pages of text; Doig is an engaging writer with a keen eye for the human interest angle and the clever turn of phrase.

About half this short book takes place in Laos, a geographical imbalance forgivable not only because so little is written about the country, but also because it contains Doig’s entertaining description of the border town of Boten. Soon after it opened in 1993, the casinos came and


The Royal Jingland Hotel, boomerang-shaped and painted gold, presided over the tiny city of Boten like a pair of arms spread wide… Out front, electric trams idled near the fountain, waiting to shuttle guests to the city’s throbbing dive bars, velvet-rope nightclubs, and street vendors selling Chinese aphrodisiacs and pirated DVDs.


It all fell victim to one of China’s periodic policy revisions, and in 2010


the Royal Jingland Hotel rolled up its red carpet, parked the trams in the weeds behind the building, and slapped a bike lock on its doors.


But Boten is having a second lease on life as a station on the coming railroad, with casinos repurposed as malls and emporiums. Doig also introduces the reader to Somsavat Lengsavad, a mover and shaker who had “dreams bigger than his cash-strapped nation could afford” and dragged Laos into China’s embrace.

Doig’s breezy aptitude with metaphor is evident in his descriptions of Johor’s Forest City,


a Chinese development with room for 700,000 residents being built across a string of manmade islands just off the coast of Malaysia … marketed chiefly as Singapore-adjacent.


He goes to have a look and


in the sales showroom, the city’s sheer size was on display in its glitzy scale model, which itself was nearly big enough for a child to lumber through like a marauding Godzilla. The model’s twisty silver condo towers were strewn with hanging gardens and purple LED lights, lending it a hip moon colony vibe. Several had sold out signs hanging across their facades.

While reading, one hears whispers of “Panama” and “Suez”.

The over-riding theme is one of Chinese plays for dominance. There are ironies in this, of course, as Doig describes behavior of the sort that China previously criticized Western imperialists for:


In return for helping poorer countries modernize, China often expects to be granted de facto control over a piece of those countries. Not to colonize that piece—simply to monetize it. Not to own it, per se, but to access and utilize it in a way that benefits China directly.


Doig takes a detour from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port. China made loans to Sri Lanka which it could not repay:


Sri Lanka agreed to give Beijing an 80 percent stake in the seaport China had just “contributed” to Sri Lanka’s shores in exchange for forgiving some of its debt. This stake was reduced after public protests, but the outcome remained the same: Beijing got control of one of the most strategically placed deep-sea ports in the world.


Doig casts a jaundiced eye on what has been called China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”, but China didn’t really invent it. While reading these passages, one hears whispers of “Panama” and “Suez”, although admittedly Britain and US didn’t always bother with the debt part.


The long-form journalism format has advantages in immediacy but also sometimes suffers from being the “first draft of history”. There is a reference to “Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former prime minister”, somewhat unfortunate for a book which was published in May. The Malaysia-Singapore leg of the railway is also, of course, now rather up in the air.

To be fair, Doig notes in his conclusion that


Southeast Asia is a churning region, chronically awash in political upheaval, economic volatility, populist zeal, and cultural friction.


Indeed. If the subject is of interest, therefore, one will have to check back with normal shortform journalism for regular updates.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.