China is trying to connect Southeast Asia with a high-speed railway. Here’s how it’s going

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Imagine hopping on a train in southwest China, traveling nearly 2,000 kilometers and arriving in Singapore – less than 30 hours later.

This is how China sees Southeast Asia as its territory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a major foreign development program launched more than a decade ago.

In 2021, semi-speed Laos-China Railway opened to passengers, linking the southwestern Chinese trading hub of Kunming with the Laotian capital of Vientiane – a 10-hour journey covering 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) that officials say will increase the number of travelers in China while benefiting local traders and businesses. in a small landlocked country.

Also supported by China, Southeast Asia’s first bullet train It began operating in Indonesia in October 2023 after years of difficulties and delays, connecting the capital Jakarta with Bandung in West Java, one of the country’s largest cities and the center of arts and culture.

Meanwhile, a second high-speed rail project is underway in Thailand, which aims to connect the Laos-China Railway with Bangkok – but it is now facing further delays and rising construction costs. To be implemented in phases, the Thai government currently hopes to have the entire line operational by 2028. The Chinese government has not specified a timeline.

This work, seen by some experts as ‘price tag‘, has been the source of fierce controversy and scrutiny in Thailand, with the government agreeing to take on the full $5 billion (179 billion baht) construction costs for the first phase of construction, Reuters reported. The Chinese side will be responsible for establishing the railways, manufacturing, and purchasing the railways.

And when the line is finished, the system should be expanded to the north Malaysiawhere it will connect with the capital Kuala Lumpur before completing a distance of 350 kilometers (218 miles) to the south. Singapore.

During the month of January, local and international businesses were sent to work on a very profitable project. But Japanese companies, including East Japan Railway Co, he says he came out after deciding that it would be risky without financial support from the Malaysian government.

“China already boasts the world’s largest high-speed rail network and Chinese companies have long been looking to sell and export their infrastructure to other countries,” said travel and consumer researcher Gary Bowerman, founder of Check-in Asia, a research firm. and commercial.

Southeast Asia is an “obvious” choice because of its “proximity to China,” Bowerman adds.

“Connecting mainland cities by train to Laos and other Southeast Asian countries (down the line) will make it easier, and more profitable, for Chinese travelers – many of whom don’t want to travel long distances, for long periods of time.”

The attraction of Southeast Asia

Offering everything from ancient temples in Laos and beautiful beaches in Thailand to lush jungles and nature tours in Malaysia, Southeast Asia has become a hot spot for Chinese travelers, experts note.

“Many countries share borders and history with China,” says economist Pon Souvannaseng, assistant professor of international studies at Bentley University in the US.

“Of course, China sees Southeast Asia as a very important export market and a very important security center and I think, ultimately, it wants to see Southeast Asian countries in its international sphere of influence.”

Chinese tourists visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.  - Photos by Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images

Chinese tourists visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. – Photos by Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images

Interestingly, China’s large land holdings in the region are of particular interest, experts add.

“Cities like Penang and Malacca in Malaysia and Phuket Old Town, which have temples and architecture, were built by Chinese immigrants and are popular with Chinese tourists because of their history and culture,” says Bowerman.

Adding to this is the rise in popularity of rail travel – especially among young Chinese tourists, many of whom are committed to sustainable travel and looking for a new adventure, Bowerman adds.

Pan Wenbo, a 30-year-old security official from Beijing, tells CNN that taking a train through Southeast Asia from his country, rather than flying, should be cheaper and offer better views along the way. Pan has visited Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in the past five years and says he is eager to explore other countries in the region.

Others such as university student Mei Wei have taken travel tips and inspiration from celebrities on Chinese social media programs such as Douyin – China’s version of TikTok – and Youku, China’s YouTube.

Thanks to several travel videos he has seen in recent months, Wei says he is now planning a summer trip to Laos, Cambodia and possibly Thailand, to visit “special attractions” such as the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap.

He told CNN that he really enjoyed traveling by train.

“I don’t really like flying. In China, I like to take trains because you can see more from the ground (compared to being on a plane from the sky) and travel directly through the cities. “

“It also helps to keep prices consistent and cheaper than booking when you have a flight,” he adds.

Problems and conflicts

Another one Belt and Road Initiative it was established at the beginning of Xi Jinping’s presidency.

In addition to high-speed rail, billions of dollars sea ​​bridges and highwaysports, airports, electricity and telecommunication networks they are all playing an important role in creating the new “Silk Road” that the ruling Chinese Communist Party wants.

Many of these projects, such as the China-Laos Railway, were designed with economic considerations in mind, experts say. According to Chinese state mediaThe China-Laos Railway transported 4.22 million tons of cargo in 2023, an increase of 94.91% year-on-year.

Political economist Souvannaseng, who boarded the train a few months after the start of passenger operations in April 2023, said that “it was clear, even close to the construction and full opening” of the project, China and Thailand are the starting points for trade with Laos. he is left to foot the bill for a major project.

“It reminds me a lot of the Orient Express and how it benefited the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires while the Balkans were in debt and it ruined their fortunes a century later.”

China-funded and Chinese-backed projects are also viewed with suspicion and have been criticized as Beijing’s efforts to boost power and control its smaller neighbors while dealing with the economic problems of struggling countries.

“Beijing, I think, wants to see the countries of Southeast Asia in its sphere of international influence. These projects have always been successful in Beijing,” said Mr. Souvannaseng, who points out the financial difficulties that have been imposed on Laos following its railway project. backed by China billions.

“The money that was borrowed from the Lao government through China’s loan, must be paid soon. The same pull due to foreign debt in Laos is evident because of the difficulties and economic problems, and the consequences for the Lao people are obvious.”

In Malaysia, where plans for a high-speed rail link with neighboring Singapore are underway, many experts have been strongly opposed and warned against the rule. Some have drawn parallels with the West Kowloon train station in Hong Kong which has been largely opened fans and conflicts in 2018.

The $10.75 billion infrastructure project connects Hong Kong with 44 provinces in China, including major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But it also allows Chinese law to be applied to part of Hong Kong’s railway station, a controversial arrangement that has drawn criticism for undermining the city’s autonomy.

Officials, on both sides, have defended the station and high-speed rail as a tool to promote economic opportunity and “good cross-border transportation.” But critics – many in Hong Kong – said it was a development even he wanted to or begging.

“It has to do with fear, anger and anxiety about China and Hong Kong’s shrinking perception of China,” analysts told CNN. at that time about its opening.

A worker waits for passengers to board the Jakarta-Bandung train during a week-long trial run at Halim station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023. - Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty ImagesA worker waits for passengers to board the Jakarta-Bandung train during a week-long trial run at Halim station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023. - Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

A worker waits for passengers to board the Jakarta-Bandung train during a week-long trial run at Halim station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023. – Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

“Any global infrastructure project will involve multiple countries and governments and will involve issues of governance and regulation,” said Wong Muh Rong, managing director and founder of Astramina Advisory in Kuala Lumpur. “In addition to the cost, that alone is a big thing and not something that can be easily solved.”

Wong said that while there were “real advantages” to high-speed trains, the decision to build and implement them should be balanced with cost and benefits.

“In the example of the high-speed rail between Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore would have only one station – Malaysia would have the rest,” Wong told CNN. But who will have a say? And if additional foreign investment comes from China, it will make things even more difficult.

“Currently, there is no reason to have a high-speed railway between Malaysia and Singapore, especially if there are good trains and flights of less than three hours. The cost is too high and it would be difficult to do.”

With reports from Hassan Tayir in Hong Kong.

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