The seeds of world ambition are historical but it would be reckless to dismiss them, says Oxford analyst Tom Miller.
China expert Tom Miller likes to use a thought experiment to explain what China is doing. Decades from now, once-mighty Europe is sinking into decrepitude. Tens of millions of Europeans have been killed in uprisings, wars and an occupation by former ally the United States. Europe has become a minor player on a hostile global stage. But the ruined empire vows to rebuild itself.
It may sound like a dystopian horror film, says Miller (pictured right). But this is an approximation of the fall of China from ‘the world’s greatest power and its leading civilisation’ in 1800 (much as Britain saw its empire in 1900), a gradual process culminating in the Japanese invasion in 1931 and the Second World War which ‘brought China to its knees’. Ever since the victory of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949, the goal of Chinese leaders has been to raise China again to take up its old place as the greatest world civilisation.
A rejuvenation plan is President Xi Jinping’s ‘guiding philosophy’, according to economic analyst and writer Tom Miller (Merton, 1997). Starting with a takeover of power across the Asian continent, Xi hopes to make China a global superpower once again. ‘It’s about making China wealthy and powerful,’ says Miller. ‘The way they’d like to have it would be to divide [the world] between the two superpowers, the US in the West and China in the East.’ The official target date for making China powerful again, he adds, is 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
After reading English Literature at Oxford, Miller wanted time out to travel. He went to teach English in China and ‘fell in love with the place’. Having completed a Master’s in Chinese Studies at SOAS (London’s School of Oriental and African Studies), he returned to China and started working as a journalist for the likes of the South China Morning Post, and then as an Asian economic research analyst. Since writing his first book, on China’s urbanisation, he has turned to considering China’s current empire-building across Asia.Tom Miller in the Pamir Mountains beside the Chinese-built road from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan
Miller moved back to Oxford 18 months ago with his wife and children, but spends much of a year in the East — where he has explored the ‘new silk road’, an economic belt China is actively establishing which stretches from China’s east coast across Russia and the Caspian Sea to Turkey and Germany. There’s also a 21st-century maritime silk route, leading from south-east China around the South China Sea and on to Sri Lanka, the Arabian gulf and east Africa.
‘China has enormous financial muscle’, says Miller, ‘and it’s very, very good at building hard infrastructure.’ By creating infrastructure in other poorer Asian countries, he says, there are benefits for developing nations like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Laos: ‘China is literally keeping the lights on in Tajikistan. It’s built the power stations and the power grid. It’s building roads and railways that will connect it with other countries.’
But stepping into economic vacuums also means China grows its geopolitical power. ‘Will these countries become satellites of China?’ Miller wonders. His research has taken him to ten countries surrounding China, talking to people on the ground from market traders to truck drivers, from monks to prostitutes.
China’s new economic belt and maritime ‘silk road’ as illustrated in Miller’s book
Along the way he has explored some surreal new Chinese colonies. One is to be found in the ‘golden triangle’ on the Mekong River on the borders of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China, an area famous for drug smuggling. A Chinese company has bought land in Laos and established what Miller calls ‘a sovereign territory’. Wealthy employees use Chinese mobile phone services and frequent a casino manned by Burmese people. The new Chinese settlers have built a temple complete with imported ‘mystical monks from a holy mountain in China’, as well as, just around the corner, a row of brothels staffed by Chinese prostitutes. ‘It’s completely bizarre,’ says Miller.
Another odd place is Ruili, until recently known as a ‘sin city’ on the lawless border between China and Myanmar. Ten years ago it was a centre for sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and prostitution. Now it’s being cleaned up, with a new Chinese export-processing centre and a railway, and an aim of ‘turning Burma into a Chinese California — the West Coast it doesn’t have’.
Miller has found that ‘often people on the ground fear the Chinese presence. There’s often a populist backlash to what China’s doing.’
One of the best examples of this is Myanmar/Burma. Having been ruled by corrupt generals for years, the nation’s only friend for a long time was China. Chinese officials were considered by the Burmese people ‘to have blood on their hands’ for working with the military junta, and were ‘hated’, says Miller. Since the junta’s collapse in 2011 there has been ‘a huge backlash against what China has been doing’ and Chinese projects in the country have been put on hold.
Tom Miller stands in China; beyond the fence is Myanmar/Burma
Another example is Sri Lanka. After its civil war, Sri Lanka was under sanctions, but says Miller, ‘China doesn’t care about that. It’s quite happy to work with authoritarian regimes and doesn’t worry about human rights abuses. It was very willing to go into Sri Lanka and build roads, ports, airports and cricket stadiums the government wanted.’ Sri Lanka then owed around 80 per cent of its gross domestic product to China. The more democratic regime in power since 2015 has reassessed Chinese investments and is trying to restructure the unaffordable loans. Having been colonised by the British, Sri Lanka now fears being colonised by China, Miller says.
And India fears China too, he adds. ‘China and India have never been friends. China keeps India on edge by being close to Pakistan. India is terrified of China building a string of pearls around it — naval bases in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh. China has started sending submarines into the Indian Ocean.’
Just as the US sees the Caribbean and Latin America ‘as its backyard’, China’s aspiration is to have similar dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, Miller says. Naturally, ‘the US has a very different view of how this should play out.’ The US is still by far the most powerful player across Asia, Miller stresses. It has alliances and military bases across Asia, while China’s only ‘sort-of’ friends have been North Korea and Burma/Myanmar.
Although even these semi-friendships are now lost, China is ‘unwilling to play second fiddle to anyone in its own backyard’. Miller warns that to avoid a war between the US and China, ‘the US and its regional allies must accept China’s determination to carve out its own sphere of influence across Asia.’
Tom Miller’s new book, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road, is published by Zed Books.
Silk road map courtesy of Zed Books. Portrait of Tom Miller by Olivia Gordon for Oxford Today; other photographs of Miller courtesy of Miller. Huangpu river and Shanghai skyline at dusk by Chuyuss; Chinese imperial dragon statue by Tawan; both via Shutterstock.