Miller, Tom. China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road. London: Zed Books, 2017. 292 pages; ISBN 978-1-78360-924-6 (cloth), 978-1-78360-923-9 (paper). Reviewed by David Skidmore.
Forthcoming: Asian Politics and Policy
China’s Asian Dream, by Tom Miller, provides a snapshot of Beijing’s rapidly evolving strategic relations with the Asian giant’s regional neighbors. Miller, a senior analyst at Gavekal Research and a former journalist, brings his fourteen years of living in China and extensive travel in the surrounding region to bear in analyzing China’s strategy for creating “a modern tribute system, with all roads literally leading to Beijing (18).”
The book begins with an overview of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is designed to knit together transportation and infrastructure networks that stretch from Southeast Asia to Europe. Miller describes BRI not as a unified plan, but a series of loosely-connected projects financed, wholly or in part, by Beijing and often employing the enormous engineering and productive capacities of its state-owned construction firms. Funding for BRI projects is being funneled through both bilateral (e.g., China Development Bank, the China Import-Export Bank) and multilateral (e.g., the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) channels.
The scope and ambition of the BRI signals Xi Jinping’s determination to discard Deng Xiaoping’s advice that China should lie low in world affairs in favor of a “pro-active” foreign policy focused on creating a sense of “common destiny” among China and its neighbors (27). China’s goal, according to Miller, “is to create a web of informal alliances lubricated by Chinese cash. As its neighbors become ever more economically dependent on it, China believes its geopolitical leverage will strengthen” (11).
While this vision provides evidence of China’s growing confidence and power, Miller’s survey of Chinese relations with the its bordering countries also offers insights into the complexities and pitfalls that confront China as it seeks to shape a strategic environment favorable to its own interests and susceptible to its influence.
An overarching challenge for China is the global reach of a declining, but still powerful, United States. Miller points out that while the U.S. provides its Asian partners with security through a vast set of formal and informal alliances, China instead must rely on “economic diplomacy because it lacks political leverage” (240). Precisely because China has risen so rapidly, many neighboring countries are both attracted and repelled by Beijing as they seek to “extract as much economic benefit from China, in terms of trade and investment, without losing political and economic sovereignty” (18).
Miller also argues that China is involved in various conflicts that disrupt the sense of “common destiny” that Chinese leaders aim to cultivate among its neighbors. China is engaged in tense territorial disputes with India, Japan and the various competing claimants to the South China Sea. Many people in Central Asia resent Beijing’s tough treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. In addition, Russia competes with China over political and economic influence in former Soviet republics. With so many neighbors spread across such a vast geographical expanse, it is little wonder that Beijing struggles to harmonize relations along its border.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is meant to smooth over many of these irritants. Yet the BRI carries risks of its own. Many of the countries that would fall under the BRI umbrella are relatively poor and politically unstable. Infrastructure projects are politically sensitive as they almost invariably displace people and generate environmental hazards. In addition, these projects often fail to generate sufficient revenue to pay for themselves, resulting in unsustainable debts for host governments. The debts could be mitigated by sufficient positive externalities, such as growing private sector investment, but benefits are anything but guaranteed. Chinese infrastructure firms themselves are sources of problems. Miller points out that these firms have mixed records in large-scale projects in Africa, where critics have questioned the large-scale importation of Chinese laborers, negative environmental impacts and population displacement. While China’s state-owned behemoths “are happy dealing with local elites and unelected officials” they are “less adept at dealing with civil society” (241).
The high risks that will accompany China’s efforts to radiate power across the Asian continent will force significant changes in Beijing foreign policies. Miller points out that “Beijing’s resolve to defend both its core national interests and the rights of its citizens means that non-interference in foreign affairs is no longer an option” (244). Like previous imperial powers, China risks being drawn into the local political quagmires of its client states.
With respect to America’s response to China’s rise, Miller argues that “the US and its regional allies must accept China’s determination to carve out its own sphere of influence across Asia” and “accommodate it within a remodeled regional security structure” (248). The author, however offers little evidence that either Washington or Beijing possess the wisdom or diplomatic dexterity that will be needed to manage such a transition.
What Miller’s survey of China’s growing strategic imprint upon its own near-abroad lacks in theoretical sophistication or historical depth is balanced by its readability, detailed reporting and perceptive insights. While the shelf life of this sort of book is brief, it nevertheless provides an informative real-time examination of the most important geo-political transformation of the present era.
David Skidmore is a Professor of Political Science at Drake University. He has taught at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, the University of Hong Kong and the University of International Business and Economics (Beijing). He is co-author (with Thomas D. Lairson) of International Political Economy: The Struggle for Power and Wealth in a Globalizing World (Routledge, 2017).