With China’s domestic rail network already developing at a rapid pace, the Chinese government is planning to go international, with plans underway to create a regional rail network stretching as far as Singapore.
Strategically positioned in south-western China, Kunming is set to become the key regional hub connecting China and Southeast Asia. The planned railway network will help boost trade in the region and improve passenger connections between China and the ASEAN states. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) came into force in early 2010, making it the world’s third largest FTA in terms of trade volume.
Much of South-East Asia’s current rail network is generally in poor condition, and is not commonly used for freight transportation. China’s interest in regional rail network development is not difficult to understand; on one hand opening new efficient trade routes with neighboring countries will boost China’s economy, particularly in the less developed western provinces in close proximity to SE Asia. Additionally, China wants to spread political influence in the region, and by contributing Chinese capital and high-speed rail technology, they can increase their sway in the region’s affairs.
Another key factor is potential access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar, a possibility which could have huge strategic importance for China.
The proposed route will connect China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore. The completed network could stretch to as much as 14,000 km, with three main lines. The eastern line will run from Kunming through Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia to Singapore. The central line from Kunming will go through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore Finally, the western line will stretch from Kunming through Dali, Ruili and Myanmar to Singapore.
Several of the countries involved already have existing rail networks which will be combined into the new network. Eventually a full circuit will be completed around the ASEAN-China region. Tourism will be boosted, but the most significant impact will be for cargo. The ADB estimates that high speed rail transportation will reduce freight transport costs in the region by as much as two-thirds when compared to freight transport by road and sea.
Major sections of the network will be completed by 2015, but it is unlikely that the whole network will be completed before 2020. China’s ambitious plans will inevitably meet some resistance as they carve new rail routes into the landscape of their South-East Asian neighbors. However, China’s offer of much-needed infrastructure investment, new rail technology and the potential economic benefits which will come from the new rail network, mean that it’s an offer which is difficult to refuse.
China’s ambitious plans have even led to speculation that a high-speed China-Europe route could be in the pipeline, but this doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. As China has used its ‘soft-power’ approach to gain access to natural resources on the African continent through investment and new job creation, it looks like the same approach could work in South-East Asia. (ChinaIntelligence Online)