D. M. Lampton u.a.: Rivers of Iron Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

Rivers of Iron. Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia

Lampton, David M.; Ho, Selina; Kuik, Cheng-Chwee
Oakland, California 2020: University of California Press
336 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Man Zhang, Forschungsinstitut Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt and Research Centre Global Dynamics, Leipzig Universität

This book details China’s vision to connect China with seven Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore) by building a Pan-Asia Railway from Kunming in China to Singapore. The railways mainly consist of three lines: the Eastern, the Central, and the Western lines, all departing from Kunming, running respectively through Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, converging in Bangkok, Thailand, and eventually all heading to Singapore. This grand railroad project is a fragment of China’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which constitutes a major part of Xi Jinping’s China Dream (zhongguo meng) and is dedicated to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” (zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing).

The book consists of 8 chapters. Chapter 1 offers a book overview and its research strategies. Chapter 2 traces the origins of China’s grand vision – railroad connectivity between China and Southeast Asian countries – and argues that the construction of the Pan-Asia Railroad is not an original initiative of the Chinese government; it has a long history. In Chapter 3, the authors delve into domestic debates about China’s expansion and export of high-speed railways in other countries, and they indicate that China is not a monolithic actor when it comes to infrastructure projects abroad. Moreover, as the authors detailed in Chapter 4, the mixed reaction of Southeast Asian countries to China’s policy and their determinants further illustrate the complexity and challenges of this grand vision of China. As a result, these cross-national projects have been characterized by protracted bargaining (Chapter 5) and implementation challenges (Chapter 6). The last two chapters address the geo-economic and geopolitical implications of railway connectivity and the significance of railway connectivity. The authors argue that the planned railway vision, if achieved, could create a China-centered economic hub and would change the economic and political geography of China, Asia, and the world in a transformative way.

The construction of a Pan-Asia Railway is not an original initiative of the Chinese government but has its historical origins: from the British and French colonial period, through Japanese occupation and rule, then through domestic promotion by leaders in Southeast Asian countries, to the current initiative of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The historical origins indicate the strategic significance of railroad connectivity in the region. Power requires certain spatial channels, in this case, railway links, to extend its reach to other regions. Thus, Rivers of Iron is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on the relationships between China and Southeast Asian countries, and, to a large scale, China and its increasing global influence.

Not only does the connectivity have its historical basis, but the Belt and Road Initiative can also be traced back to the ancient Silk Road. The historical origins echo Xi Jinping’s attempts to draw legitimacy from tradition and history. The PRC government seeks to revitalize the traditional trade routes linking Europe and Asia to increase China’s political and economic influence in the region and worldwide. The railway linking China to Southeast Asia is a part of this ambition.

The book makes an important contribution by emphasizing the initiative and agency of smaller states in the face of a superpower like China. The authors depict the initiatives, leverage, and negotiation strategies of weaker players in their deals with China. On the one hand, the authors convincingly argue that most Southeast Asian governments willingly jump on the bandwagon of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives. Laotian officials, for example, sought to push forward with railway constructions, well knowing the enormous debt risks that would follow. The connectivity is a result of a bilateral choice. On the other hand, the book also illustrates that when small states have bargaining power, they will attempt to modify the negotiated terms by postponing or suspending the project to pressure the Chinese government for more benefits. By adopting different negotiation strategies, Southeast Asian countries attempt to maximize their interests in their deals with China. Furthermore, domestic political circumstances in Southeast Asian countries, such as political systems, elections, or local protests, are likely to alter, prolong, or even cancel the deals with China that they have sealed or are putting into practice. Thus, the book indirectly argues that China’s growing investments in other countries may not be a deliberate attempt to create so-called “debt trap” diplomacy, as many have accused.

The dynamics between superpowers and small states could also be beneficial to scholarly discussions in other contexts. For example, as some scholars have pointed out in China – Africa studies, the institutional structures of African regimes may explain much of the diverse responses to China’s growing engagement in Africa.1 These studies remind us that scholars should be cautious about binary views when dealing with complex international relations.

Another major issue that the authors intend to explore is that the implications of infrastructure, or more specifically, rail connectivity between China and Southeast Asia. The authors point out that infrastructure development, such as railroads, is not only a way for the Chinese Government to stimulate economic growth and further enhance its performance legitimacy, but also an avenue for China to demonstrate its power and increase its influence. China might benefit more, for example, by exporting its standards through these infrastructure projects. It probably matters more to Chinese officials to “push participating countries to adopt Chinese standards on everything from construction to finance to data management” than to invest in a port or a rail line (p. 63). Certainly, standards exporting is not limited to railway construction; Chinese companies have adopted a similar strategy for standards such as 5G technology. The strategic significance of standards export is more than evident in the US–China trade war.

In addition, this book also offers unique insights into the debates surrounding China’s economic and political development in the post-Mao period. After the end of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, marked by Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the CCP leadership promoted a market-based, state-controlled economy model. Many scholars now refer to it as the “China Model”. Early studies argued that economic development in the post-Mao era would promote democratic political reform in China. However, contrary to expectations, the CCP has maintained its one-party dictatorship to today while sustaining economic growth. As a leading Indonesian scholar, Ignatius Wibowo, pointed out, the China Model has received considerable recognition, and Southeast Asian countries “have shifted their development strategy from one based on free markets and democracy to one based on semi-free markets and an illiberal political system.”2 Southeast Asian countries’ support for rail interconnection, albeit to varying degrees, corroborates Wibowo’s point.

In short, the book provides a useful overview and discussion of the complexity of China’s expansion in infrastructure abroad and could appeal to a wide readership interested in current development in Southeast Asia.


1 Steve Hess / Richard Aidoo, Charting the Roots of Anti-Chinese Populism in Africa. A Comparison of Zambia and Ghana, in: Journal of Asian and African Studies 49 (2014) 2, pp. 129-147.
2 Quoted from: Joshua Kurlantzick, Why the ‘China Model’ Isn’t Going Away, in: The Atlantic, 21 March 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/03/why-the-china-model-isnt-going-away/274237/(accessed 20.9.2021).

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