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Understanding China’s New Diplomacy

Silk Roads and Bullet Trains

Gerald Chan

What is China’s high-speed rail diplomacy? What is China’s infrastructure diplomacy? How do they relate to each other and to the country’s Belt and Road Initiative? Can China finance the numerous projects around the world under the initiative? This book assesses the important implications of China’s new diplomacy for the global political economy. It argues that a new developmental path called ‘geo-developmentalism’ is in the making: China plays a leading role in promoting growth and building connections across Eurasia and beyond.
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Preface and acknowledgements

Silk Roads and Bullet Trains

Gerald Chan

My interest in writing this book can be traced back to my reading some three years ago in the Universities Service Centre for China Studies, a library on contemporary China belonging to the Main Library of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I was intrigued by three things at that time. The first was the fast development of China’s train industry, especially its high-speed railway, in the past decade or so. Early in my childhood, I was curious about trains, as toys and as the real thing, the real thing being the old diesel trains running from a terminus station near Star Ferry in the Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong, to Fanling in the New Territories. I had also been a little proud quietly of myself since my primary school days when I read in history books that the ‘Father of China’s Railway’, a US-trained engineer called Zhan Tianyou (1861–1919), was born in Nanhai prefecture near Guangzhou, my ancestral home!

The second thing that intrigued me was and still is the New Silk Road initiated by the Chinese government to rekindle the former glory of the trading activities along the ancient Silk Road. This ancient Silk Road connecting Xi’an and other Chinese cities to Venice via Central Asia was a major conduit of ‘globalisation’ between the East and West, not only in terms of trade but also in the exchange of ideas among many captivating old civilisations, well before the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. I have wanted to do something about the international relations of the old Silk Road for a long time, only to be able to realise this submerged yearning now, but in quite a different way.

The third thing was China’s idea of establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Like many observers of China some three years ago, I was amazed at how little was known about this bank. I began to keep an eye on the development of the bank, out of curiosity and my ongoing interest in China’s compliance in global financial affairs.

These three things – China’s high-speed rail, the New Silk Road and the AIIB – turn out to be intricately linked. The New Silk Road, or the ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) initiative has now become China’s signature foreign policy. It aims to make infrastructure connections and to promote global trade. China’s high-speed rail diplomacy has become a major part of this initiative. And the AIIB has become one of the new multilateral development institutions led by China to help finance many mega infrastructure projects in Asia and beyond. In this book, I will focus on these three things, examine their linkages, assess their implications and try to theorise China’s developmental path as a result of the implementation of OBOR.

The sub-title of this book – Silk Roads and Bullet Trains – evokes in the mind something soft and something hard, something old and yet something new. Soft in terms of the smooth feel of silk, hard in terms of metal trains and concrete constructions. The Silk Road has a long and glorious past with a nostalgic feel to it, while bullet trains are relatively new manufactures possessing an exciting feel of speed and modern comfort. The old Silk Road (in fact consisting of many different routes and roads) was first built more than 3,000 years ago; it became a thoroughfare more than 2,000 years ago, and reached its climax of activities about 1,400 years ago.1 China was an old participant to the exchange of goods and ideas between East and West along the ancient Silk Road. Bullet trains were first built in Japan in 1964 to coincide with the celebrations of the Tokyo Olympics. China is a latecomer to high-speed rail. It started to operate high-speed trains only after the Beijing Olympics in 2006. Now high-speed trains have huge potential to provide a convenient infrastructure connection to enhance the flow of trade, people and ideas along the routes traversing Eurasia to bring Europe and Asia closer together, opening up new possibilities in politico-economic developments and new understandings of international relations.

In the course of writing this book, I have incurred a lot of debts to many friends and institutions. Nearly all my research since my doctoral days has benefited in one way or another from my association with the Universities Service Centre (USC) for China Studies, previously located on Argyle Street near Kowloon City in the 1980s and now physically based on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I am grateful to the staff there, past and present, for making me welcome and comfortable on my numerous visits there.

My recent visits to the USC have been facilitated by a number of visiting professorships kindly offered to me by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In this respect, Professor Gordon Cheung, former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University, has been particularly kind and considerate. Many colleagues and friends in Hong Kong have been exceedingly generous to me, in particular those in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and those in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong.

I am grateful to the Korean Foundation for Advanced Studies for inviting me to give a TEDx Talk on China’s high-speed rail diplomacy in Seoul in August 2015. The talk gave me a chance to distil some of my thoughts and to cement my interest and determination to work further on the topic.

I count myself lucky to have been awarded a fellowship in 2015–16 by the East Asian Institute in Seoul to work on a project related to China’s high-speed rail diplomacy. The fellowship helped to affirm the value of my research area and direction. It supported my visits not only to Seoul, but also to Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai and Beijing to make presentations based on my research, to exchange ideas with specialists and to do further reading, thinking and writing. Apart from the East Asian Institute, my principal host, colleagues in the field of China and East Asian studies at Keio University, Waseda University, the National Taiwan University, Fudan University and Peking University exceeded their calls of duty to make me feel so purposeful. While in China, I consciously took the high-speed train running between Shanghai and Beijing in October 2016 in order to gain some first-hand experience. I have definitely enjoyed my many rides on the Hong Kong Express train between Hong Kong International Airport and the city centre, which is notable for its speed and comfort, only to realise most recently that it was a bit shaky, compared with the smooth rides between Shanghai and Beijing.

Parts of Chapters 3 and 6 have been published as a working paper entitled ‘China’s high-speed rail diplomacy: Global impacts and East Asian responses’, East Asian Institute, Seoul, February 2016. An early version of Chapter 4 has been published as an article entitled ‘From laggard to superpower: Explaining China’s high-speed rail “miracle”’, International Affairs, Tokyo, May 2017, pp. 23–34 (in both Japanese and English). An early version of Chapter 5 has been published as a book chapter, ‘China’s New Silk Roads: A new global financial order in the making?’, in Bo Zhiyue (ed.), China-US relations in global perspective (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016), pp. 91–107.

I have received help of one kind or another from many institutions: my home university, the University of Auckland, especially the Faculty of Arts, the School of Social Sciences, and the New Zealand Asia Institute; the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Fudan University, Shanghai; Peking University, Beijing; Nanking University, Nanjing; National Taiwan University, Taipei; Waseda University, Tokyo; Keio University, Tokyo; East Asian Institute, Seoul; the Korean Foundation for Advanced Studies, Seoul; the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research and the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

I have received a lot of help, advice and support from many individuals: Dr Pak K. Lee, Dr Chan Lai-ha, Professor Huang Xiaoming, Professor Alex Tan, Dr Sung-Young Kim, Dr Stephen Noakes, Dr Chen Xin, Professor Wang Gungwu, Professor Richard W.X. Hu, Professor Chu Yuan-han, Professor Su Changhe, Professor Shen Dingli, Professor Jia Qingguo, Professor Chu Feng, Professor Gao Bai, Professor Li Mingjiang, Professor Michael Yahuda, Professor Chung Jae-ho, Dr Lin Kun-chin, Dr Li Chun-yi, Dr Shi Mingtao, Dr Wong Pak-nung, Dr Walter Lee and Dr Marcus Chu.

I have given talks in many places in the Asia-Pacific region. I would like to thank the sponsors and hosts, and the audiences for their feedback and comments.

Finally, my heartfelt thanks to my family: my wife Alice and our two grown-up sons Darwin and Byron. They have been most supportive of my life frequently on the move as an absent(-minded) husband, father and professor, rotating around Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, Cambridge and Durham in the UK, and Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, and other Asian cities in between, over the last three decades or so. I have learnt to relax and enjoy listening to classical music in my quiet moments from my wife and jazz from my two boys. Thank you!

Stonefields, Auckland


1.  Xue Li (ed.), Zhongguo sichou zhilu zidian [China Silk Road Dictionary] (Xinjiang: Xinjiang Renmin Chubanshe, 1994), p. 2.