China is trying to connect Southeast Asia with high-speed railways. this is how things work

(CNN) — Imagine boarding a train in southwest China, traveling approximately 3,200 kilometers and arriving in Singapore in less than 30 hours.

This is the scenario that China is envisioning for Southeast Asia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive overseas infrastructure development program that was launched more than a year ago.

In 2021, the Laos–China Semi-High-Speed ​​Railway opened its doors to passengers, connecting the commercial hub of Kunming in southwestern China with the Lao capital of Vientiane, a journey of approximately 10 hours spanning nearly 1,000 kilometers. And which officials say led to an increase in the number of landlocked Chinese travelers, while benefiting local vendors and businesses in the small landlocked country.

Additionally, with China’s help, Southeast Asia’s first bullet train began running in Indonesia in October 2023 after years of setbacks and delays, connecting the capital Jakarta with Bandung in West Java, one of the country’s largest cities. and is an important artistic and cultural centre. ,

Meanwhile, a second high-speed rail project is underway in Thailand, aimed at connecting the Laos-China Railway to Bangkok, but is now facing further delays and rising construction costs. The Thai government expects the line to be operational in 2028. The Chinese government has not given any deadline.

The project, which some analysts consider a “tax trap”, has been the source of heated debate and scrutiny in Thailand, where the government agreed to bear the entire US$5 billion (179 billion baht) construction cost for the first construction phase. , Reuters reported. The Chinese side will be responsible for the installation of the system, design and procurement of trains.

And when the line is completed, there are plans to extend it to northern Malaysia, where it will connect to the capital Kuala Lumpur, before ending in Singapore, 350 kilometers south.

In January, bids were submitted from local and international consortia for the lucrative project. But Japanese companies, including East Japan Railway Company, reportedly pulled out after deciding that it would be too risky without official financial support from the Malaysian government.

“China already has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, and Chinese companies have been looking to sell their infrastructure technology to other countries for some time,” says travel and consumer trends analyst Gary Bowerman, founder of Check-In. Trying to export.” in Asia, a tourism-focused research and marketing company.

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

“Connecting mainland cities to Laos and other Southeast Asian countries directly by train (more on that later) would be easy and beneficial for Chinese travelers, many of whom do not want to travel long distances for long periods of time “

Southeast Asia’s appeal

Southeast Asia offers everything from ancient temples in Laos and pristine beaches in Thailand to lush rainforests and eco-tourism in Malaysia, which has long been a major draw for Chinese travelers, experts say Is.

“Many countries share borders and a long history with China,” explains political economist Pon Souvannasaeng, Associate Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University (United States).

“Of course, China sees Southeast Asia as a major export market as well as a major security region and I think it ultimately wants to see Southeast Asian countries in its geopolitical sphere of influence.”

Chinese tourists visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.  (Credit: Pirapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Chinese tourists visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. (Credit: Pirapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Interestingly, the region’s large Chinese diaspora is another major attraction, experts say.

“Cities like Penang and Malacca in Malaysia and Phuket’s Old Town, with their temples and architecture, were built by Chinese immigrants and are very popular among Chinese tourists for their historical and cultural ties,” says Bowerman.

Coupled with this is the growing popularity of train travel, says Bowerman, especially among young Chinese tourists, many of whom are opting for sustainable travel and looking for a new sense of adventure.

Pan Wenbo, a 30-year-old security professional from Beijing, tells CNN that taking an epic Southeast Asia train trip from his country instead of flying would be cheaper and offer plenty of beautiful scenery along the way. Pan has visited Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines over the past five years, and says he would like to explore other countries in the region.

Others, like university student Mei Wei, have been inspired by travel tips from Chinese social media influencers such as Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – and Youku, the Chinese YouTube.

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

As he told CNN, he’s especially excited to travel by train.

“I don’t really like flying. In China, I like taking the train because you can see more on the ground (than by plane) and travel directly into the middle of cities.”

“It also helps that prices are usually stable and cheaper than booking flights when you’re at the mercy of the airlines,” he adds.

Challenges and controversies

China’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched at the beginning of Xi Jinping’s presidency.

In addition to high-speed railways, sea bridges and billion-dollar highways, ports, airports, power plants and telecommunications networks play a key role in building the new “Silk Road” desired by China’s ruling Communist Party.

Experts say many of these projects, such as the China-Laos railway, were designed with economic interests in mind. According to Chinese state media, in 2023, the China-Laos Railway transported a cumulative volume of freight of 4.22 million tons, an increase of 94.91% year-on-year.

Political economist Souvannasaeng, who traveled on the train a few months after passenger services are set to begin in April 2023, said this cargo transfer project was “very clearly, even closer to full construction and opening”. China and Thailand are the main centers for trade. And Laos is footing the bill for this massive project.

“It reminds me very much of the Orient Express and the way it benefited the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, while the inner Balkan regions were burdened with that debt and their economies were strained more than a century later.”

Infrastructure projects financed and supported by China are also viewed with suspicion and have been criticized as attempts by Beijing to exert its influence and gain control over smaller neighboring countries, despite its heavy financial burdens on struggling countries. There are results.

“I think Beijing ultimately wants to see Southeast Asian countries in its sphere of geopolitical influence. These projects have always responded to Beijing’s strategic and geopolitical interests,” says Sovannaseng, financed by Laos. Highlighting the financial burden imposed on him following a multi-million dollar railway project. China.

“The money that was lent to the Lao government through Chinese sovereign debt will soon have to be repaid. The immediate impact of that external debt for Laos is evident in the recurring tensions and financial crisis, and the consequences for Lao society in general. Yes. Very clear.”

In Malaysia, where a high-speed train is being planned with neighboring Singapore, many experts have consistently expressed strong opposition and caution about sovereignty. Some have compared it to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Railway Station, which opened with much fanfare and controversy in 2018.

A US$10.75 billion infrastructure investment connects Hong Kong to 44 mainland Chinese destinations, including major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But it also allows mainland Chinese law to apply to a portion of Hong Kong’s terminal station, a controversial arrangement that drew sharp public criticism for undermining the city’s autonomy.

Officials from both parties defended the station and high-speed rail as promoting economic opportunities and as a “convenient means of cross-border transportation.” But critics – many in Hong Kong – said it was a development that was neither wanted nor requested.

“It has to do with fear, resentment and anxiety toward China, and the perception that Hong Kong’s status is diminished relative to China,” experts told CNN at the time of the inauguration.

A worker waits for passengers to board the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train during a one-week public trial at Halim station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023.  (Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

A worker waits for passengers to board the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train during a one-week public trial at Halim station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023. (Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

“Any cross-border infrastructure will certainly involve multiple countries and governments, and will touch on issues of sovereignty and laws,” says Wong Muh Rong, managing director and founder of Kuala Lumpur-based business advisory firm Astramina Advisory. “Aside from the cost, this is a huge thing in itself and not something that can be addressed easily.”

Wong reiterated that there are “undoubted advantages” to high-speed trains, but the decision to build and operate one should be made based on costs and benefits.

“In the example of the high-speed rail line between Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore will probably only have one stop, Malaysia will have more,” Wong told CNN. “But who has the final say? And if additional external financing comes from China, things will become even more complicated.”

“At least for now, there is no need for a high-speed rail line between Malaysia and Singapore, especially when efficient trains and flights of less than three hours already exist. The costs are too high and it would be very difficult to do so “

With information from Hassan Tayir in Hong Kong.


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