Book Review: ‘China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road’, by Tom Miller


The China Road’s favourite book on the subject, ‘China’s Asian Dream’ (2017) is a well-balanced, utterly readable, yet information rich exploration of China’s rise through the medium of the Belt and Road.

Tom Miller is a Senior Analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics and editor of the China Economic Quarterly. He’s lived and worked in China for 14 years and has a solid journalistic pedigree when it comes to reporting from across Asia. You can find a great interview with Miller, about his book, on the Sinica podcast here. Here is a link to the publisher’s page on China’s Asian Dream.

Having read a decent chunk of the English language literature available on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), ‘China’s Asian Dream’ remains my favourite piece of writing on the subject. If I were to recommend one title to anyone with an interest in BRI, either a hardened development veteran, or a newcomer, I’d recommend Miller’s book.

Why the glowing recommendation? It’s just a very well balanced, eminently readable book, which neverthless eschews sensationalism and still manages to pull its weight in the facts department.

For a book on what many might consider quite a dull subject (infrastructure planning isn’t always exciting), China’s Asian Dream is quite a page turner. Miller is not afraid of letting the inner travel writer shine:

Away from the wide roads and tower blocks of the modern city, where the city’s Han Chinese residents live, Kashgar remains resolutely Uyghur. The streets are filled with women wearing voluminous dresses and bright headscarves; a few even cover their entire head with a rough brown shawl, peering out through the stitching. Some working men, in flat caps and faces grizzled with stubble, are so Western-looking they could be Turkish or even Sicilian. Older men, dressed in white robes and embroidered skullcaps, sport a magnificent array of beards – long and wispy, flowing luxuriant or carefully cropped. With deep-set eyes and high noses, they look quite distinct from their Mongoloid neighbours in China proper and across the central Asian steppe. (69-70)

He is also adept at weaving historical narratives:

As the Soviet Union began to dissolve, however, China began to reassert its grip over its little Communist brother. After both sets of Communist Party leaders met for secret talks in Chengdu in 1990, bilateral ties were officially normalized. The CCP’s political influence in Hanoi grew rapidly in the 1990s, and is retained to this day.

And at the same time, he is a great journalist, seamlessly incorporating statistics, expert insight and on the ground experience. Of course, such intermingling is the normal template for this sort of book, but it’s definitely not always done well.

Miller succeeds because he’s a great writer, but he also really knows his stuff. By his own admission, he spent two years researching this book, ‘talking to ordinary people, you know – truckers, market traders, yes, taxi drivers, but also think tank people, government ministers, officials, monks, prostitutes, you name it’. And it shows, because reading China’s Asian Dream gives you that nice, tingly feeling of having your intellectual curiosity tickled. Miller gives the convincing impression of being in the know, introducing new ideas, while at the same time saying things that give voice to your own deeply held suspicions of the way things might be.

Miller is an expert, and this is a good book for the aspiring expert. But China’s Asian Dream is also great for someone coming fresh to BRI and even to Chinese foreign policy. It’s set out in a very easy, navigable manner, with a sturdy, insightful introduction and conclusion.

It is in these sandwiching chapters that Miller’s intellectual insight really shines, but the inner chapters contain the meat of his research, and these are neatly structured according to both geography and, essentially, how the Belt and Road is going for China in these places.

Chapter two is Central Asia, geopolitics and the threat of anti-Chinese sentiment; chapter three is the eastern part of Southeast Asia and Beijing’s (relative) success stories; chapter four is Myanmar and a case study of what happens when it all goes wrong; five is the Indian ocean and geostrategic threat; and six is the South China sea and related diplomatic tensions. Within these chapters, Miller deals with all the important places involved with BRI, and typically does so in logical order, for instance, in chapter three, moving outwards from China’s Xinjiang province, through Central Asia, to the region’s great power – Russia.

Although China’s Asian Dream clearly uses BRI as its conceptual backbone, the words Belt or Road only appear in the subtitle, which suggests the book to be more sensational than it actually is: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road.

That’s because, despite all the great on-the-ground-stuff, this is also a big-picture book, which, according to one cover blurb review is ‘one of the best accounts we have of what China’s rise really means for the world’.

Accordingly, the book is filthy rich in powerful, well-articulated, quotable snippets:

‘While Beijing wines and dines tin-pot dictators, Washington sits at the apex of the most powerful tributary system ever devised.’ (19)

‘But with China’s domestic infrastructure spending running at some US$150 billion per month in 2015, a full year of spending on foreign projects along the Belt and Road is unlikely to match even a single month’s spending at home.’ (49)

‘The people of Central Asia increasingly believe their own governments are also in China’s pocket. The truth, as the elites in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan know only too well, is that they need China just to keep the lights on.’ (84)

[About Chinese newspaper Global Times] ‘Nevertheless, Beijing allows it to play “bad cop” in the bland world of Chinese diplomacy, saying what mealy-mouthed diplomats cannot.’ (129)

‘In Africa and other developing regions, China has a reputation for handing out soft loans… Yet in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa’s administration allowed Chinese lenders to milk the island as a cash cow.’ (191)

[On maritime territory disputes] ‘All that can be said of Beijing’s arguments is that they are consistently inconsistent.’ (213)

‘Yet China cannot simply push its development model over its borders without first overcoming the weight of history and popular fear.’ (229)

And of course, ‘no one wants to be the meat in a US-China sandwich.’ (248)

But whilst Miller is good at meaningful soundbites, his biggest credit is his ability for nuanced insight. When it comes to BRI, I find there are so many charlatans and bores. Miller is certainly no bore, but (along with his obvious expertise) his ability to cut through the bullshit marks him as a worthwhile analyst.

If he has an overarching theme, it is neatly spelled out in his conclusion…

Most of the BRI debate is occupied with the question of whether BRI is part of some grand geopolitical strategy, or whether it is an altruistic economic initiative, as the Chinese government insists it is. Miller demonstrates his realpolitik understanding, by arguing:

Yet the growing weight of China’s economic and strategic interests means that it cannot afford not to play a more active global role. Simply put, in order to protect its interests abroad China must interfere in countries’ affairs. That is what great powers do.

Miller doesn’t shy away from criticising the CCP, but in a debate that is very much pro/anti-China, Miller brings a refreshingly non-moralising tone to bear on the hard realities of China’s rise.


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