China is trying to connect Southeast Asia with high-speed rail. Here's how it happens



CNN

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

This is the scenario China envisions for Southeast Asia as part of it Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast overseas infrastructure development program launched more than a decade ago.

In 2021, half-speed Laos-China Railway It opened to travelers connecting the southwestern Chinese trading hub of Kunming with the Laos capital of Vientiane — a roughly 10-hour journey spanning some 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) in the tiny landlocked country.

With China's help, Southeast Asia's first Bullet train After years of setbacks and delays, it began operating in Indonesia in October 2023, linking the capital Jakarta with Bandung in West Java, one of the country's largest cities and a significant arts and culture center.

Meanwhile, a second high-speed rail project is underway in Thailand, intended to link the Laos-China railway to Bangkok – but is now facing further delays and mounting construction costs. Launched in phases, the Thai government currently expects the entire line to be operational by 2028. The Chinese government did not elaborate on the timeframe.

The scheme is considered by some analysts to be a 'Financial engineering', the source of heated debate and scrutiny in Thailand, is that the government is agreeing to cover the full construction cost of $5 billion (179 billion baht) for the first building phase, according to Reuters. The Chinese side will be responsible for installing the systems, designing and purchasing the trains.

Once that line is finally completed, there are plans to expand to the north MalaysiaIt will connect to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and finally terminate 350 kilometers (218 mi) south. Singapore.

In January, bids from local and international consortia were submitted for the lucrative project. But Japanese companies including East Japan Railway Co Said to have left After deciding that it was too risky without official financial support from the Malaysian government.

„China is already proud The world's largest high-speed rail network And Chinese companies have long been looking to sell and export their infrastructure technology to other countries,” says tourism and consumer trends analyst Gary Bowerman, founder of Check-In Asia, a tourism-focused research and marketing firm.

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

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„Connecting mainland cities directly to Laos and other Southeast Asian countries (below) by train would be convenient and advantageous for Chinese travelers – many who don't want to travel long distances, for long periods of time.”

Offering everything from ancient temples in Laos and beautiful beaches in Thailand to lush rainforests and eco-tours in Malaysia, Southeast Asia has long been a big draw for Chinese travelers, experts note.

„Many countries share borders and long histories with China,” says political economist Bon Chouwannaseng, an assistant professor of global studies at Bentley University in the US.

„Certainly, I think China sees Southeast Asia as an important market for exports and an important area for security, and ultimately wants to see Southeast Asian countries within its geopolitical sphere of influence.”

Peeraphone Puniakiat/Sofa Images/Light Rocket/Getty Images

Chinese tourists visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok.

Interestingly, the region's large Chinese diaspora is another big attraction, experts add.

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

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

Pan Wenbo, a 30-year-old security practitioner from Beijing, tells CNN that taking an epic train journey from his country across Southeast Asia, as opposed to flying, should be cheaper and offer plenty of scenery along the way. Having visited Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines in the past five years, Ban says he is keen to explore other countries in the region.

People like university student Mei Wei have drawn inspiration from travel tips and Chinese social media apps such as Douyin – China's version of TikTok – Youku, China's YouTube.

Thanks to the many travel videos he's watched in recent months, Wei says he's planning a summer trip to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to visit „unique places” like the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap.

He told CNN he was especially excited about traveling by train.

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„I'm not a big fan of flying. In China, I like taking trains because you can see more of the ground (as in an airplane from above) and travel directly to the heart of cities.

„It helps that prices are generally consistent and cheaper than booking flights when you're at the mercy of the airlines,” he adds.

Challenges and Controversies

of China Belt and Road Initiative Launched at the beginning of Xi Jinping's presidency.

In addition to high-speed rail, several billion dollars Sea bridges And HighwaysPorts, airports, Power plants And Telecommunication networks All play a fundamental role in building the new „Silk Road” desired by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Many projects, such as the China-Laos railway, are designed with economic interests in mind, experts say. According to Chinese state mediaThe China-Laos Railway will carry a total of 4.22 million tons of freight in 2023, an increase of 94.91% year-on-year.

Political economist Chouvannatseng, who traveled on the train a few months after passenger services began in April 2023, said it was „very clearly, even close to full construction and opening” a project for freight transfer, with China and Thailand as major hubs for trade and Laos. The bill for the massive project is yet to be released.

„It reminds me a lot of the Orient Express and the way it benefited the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, while the Balkan territories were saddled with that debt, and it really hurt their economies a century later.”

China's financing and support infrastructure projects are also widely viewed with skepticism and criticized as Beijing's attempts to increase influence and gain control over smaller neighbors while having massive financial consequences for struggling nations.

„I think Beijing wants to see Southeast Asian countries within its geopolitical sphere of influence. These projects are always in Beijing's strategic and geopolitical interests,” says Souvannaseng, who highlights the financial burden placed on Laos following a multibillion-dollar Chinese-funded railway project.

“The money loaned to the Lao government through Chinese sovereign debt must be repaid as soon as possible. The immediate impact of that foreign debt to Laos is evident in the continuing stress and financial crisis, and the consequences for Lao society at large are very evident.

In Malaysia, with plans for a high-speed rail link with neighboring Singapore underway, many experts continue to voice strong opposition and remain wary of sovereignty. Some have drawn parallels with West Kowloon Railway Station in Hong Kong Fanfare and controversy In 2018.

The $10.75 billion infrastructure investment connects Hong Kong to 44 major Chinese destinations, including major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But it also allows mainland Chinese law to be applied to part of Hong Kong's terminal station, a controversial provision that has sparked public criticism that it undermines the city's autonomy.

Officials, on both sides, defended the station and the high-speed railway as a tool for increasing economic opportunities and as a „convenient means of cross-border transport”. But critics – including many in Hong Kong – said it was a development Both don't want to Didn't even ask.

„It has to do with fear of China, resentment and anxiety, and perceptions of Hong Kong's low stance vis-à-vis China,” experts told CNN. At the time Its opening.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

An employee waits to board the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train during a week-long public test phase at Halim Station in Jakarta on September 17, 2023.

„Any transnational infrastructure will certainly involve multiple countries and governments, and there is an issue of sovereignty and laws,” says Wong Muh Rong, managing director and founder of Astramina Advisory, a corporate consultancy in Kuala Lumpur. „In addition to the costs, that's a huge issue and not something that can be easily resolved.”

While high-speed trains have „definite advantages,” Wong reiterated that the decision to build and launch one must balance the costs and benefits.

„In the example of a high-speed rail line between Malaysia and Singapore, Singapore would have only one stop – Malaysia would have more,” Wong told CNN. „But who will get the final say? And if additional external funding comes in from China, that will make things more complicated.

“At least for now, there is no need for a high-speed rail link between Malaysia and Singapore, especially when there are already rail trains and flights with a capacity of less than three hours. The costs are very high and it can be very difficult to do.

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