High-Speed Empire Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia
The story of the world’s most audacious infrastructure project.
A decade ago, China did not have a single high-speed train in service. Today, it owns a network of over 14,000 miles of high-speed rail, far more than the rest of the world combined. Now China is pushing its tracks into Southeast Asia, reviving a century-old colonial fantasy of an imperial railroad stretching to Singapore and kicking off a key piece of the One Belt One Road initiative, which has a price tag of $1 trillion and reaches inside the borders of more than 60 countries.
The Pan-Asia Railway portion of One Belt One Road could transform Southeast Asia, bringing new cities, economies, and migrants to places where none existed before. But if it doesn’t succeed, that would be a cautionary tale about whether a new superpower, with levels of global authority unimaginable just a decade ago, can pull entire regions into its orbit simply with tracks, sweat, and lots of money. Journalist Will Doig traveled to Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore to chronicle the dramatic transformations taking place—and the ordinary people caught up in this moment of economic, political, and cultural collision.
“Money talks, and China has it. This vividly observed report shows how Chinese money—both governmental and private—is transforming Southeast Asia.” —Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University
“Appropriately fast-paced volume [that] effectively conveys one big idea: we need more on-the-ground investigations like this of the working of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). This mega-plan, of which the micro-plans Doig discusses are part, seeks to use not just railways but also shipping lanes, highways and flight routes to connect China to both neighboring and far-flung locales of strategic value.” —Jeffrey Wasserstrom, The Times Literary Supplement
“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, possibility, other parts of the world.... Doig offers a clear-eyed and detailed look at how Beijing’s new infrastructure push is emerging on the ground in South and Southeast Asia.” —Joshua Kurlantzick, Washington Monthly
“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.... Doig is an engaging writer with a keen eye for the human interest angle and the clever turn of phrase.” —Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
“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? ... 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.” —John Delury, Global Asia
“A US-based journalist, Doig travels through Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, spinning an engaging narrative that focuses mostly on China’s ‘railway diplomacy’.” —James Crabtree, Financial Times
“Illuminating study of China's ambitious efforts to extend its influence in Southeast Asia by means of a high-speed rail system.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A richly textured portrait of how China’s infrastructural diplomacy is changing the urban face of its neighbors. It’s not easy to find poetry and importance in industrial zones, half-empty malls, and real estate showrooms, but Doig has done just that in sketching the ambitions of China and its people.” —Greg Lindsay, co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next
Will Doig is a journalist covering urban development. He has been an editor at the Open Society Foundations, Next City, and The Daily Beast. He created and wrote Salon’s weekly “Dream City” column, and was a recurring guest on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” A graduate of George Washington University, he lives in New York City. @Will_Doig