Belt and Road

The missing link

Slow progress for China’s ‘Pan-Asian’ railway


High-speed version to come

Will China’s new railway through Southeast Asia learn much from its African predecessor, the Cape to Cairo railroad championed by nineteenth century businessman Cecil Rhodes? Policymakers in Beijing won’t welcome the comparisons to the now-maligned mining tycoon and imperial adventurer, who saw the railroad as a way of cementing British colonial power. His railway never provided a fully continuous line across the African continent either, although it came close with interlocking links of thousands of miles of railway through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain.

The Pan-Asian Railway Network is another long-distance track connecting the city of Kunming in southwestern China with Singapore, more than 2,400 miles away. It’s significant for its symbolism too, not just as a flag-bearer for the Belt and Road Initiative but also for what it signals about deepening trade between China and the region.

Progress on putting down the track has been slower than many expected, which might be why the Chinese press is celebrating news that the Thai cabinet is granting a further $380 million in funding for a stretch of line being built north of Bangkok, allowing for a faster model of bullet train. Beyond the headlines is the revelation that not much more than two miles of earthworks have been finished for the line so far, however, despite contracts being exchanged with the Chinese in the summer of 2017.

That’s a reminder of some of the realities of the railway plan, which is actually a blueprint for three networks rather than a single line: an eastern route through Vietnam and Cambodia, a central line via Laos, and a western one through Myanmar. Each will then connect through Bangkok before heading south to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and the final journey down to Singapore.

Construction is also taking different forms – sometimes wholly new line, sometimes commandeered from existing track. Nor is it always high-speed rail: trains will travel between 160kph and 250kph, moving much slower through the mountains of Laos than along the southerly stretch between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

In contrast, the building of the line has moved fastest in Laos – one of the poorest countries on the route with much of the wildest terrain. A feat of engineering in its own right (76 bridges and 154 tunnels at last count), the railway is the first in the nation’s history and due for completion next year.

Progress in Thailand has been painfully slow in comparison with only a tiny stretch of line handed over to Chinese partners for further work. The pace might intensify with the release of the new funding, although preparations for connecting track further north to the Lao border are at an earlier stage, with the authorities still surveying local residents for their views. Details on how the line is going to be developed from Bangkok down to the Malaysian border are still being finalised too. Commentators say the Thais haven’t rushed to embrace the bullet train vision, concerned by the interest rates for Chinese financing and cautious about committing to the track design. Many have needed convincing on the economic benefits of the railway as well.

There’s been similar uncertainty in Malaysia, especially when the incoming government of Mahathir Mohamad froze work on a major spur to the railway along the country’s eastern coast (see WiC417). The tactic worked, with the Chinese dropping the $20 billion bill by about a third. Construction restarted last year.

The Chinese are building parts of the railway but not the whole thing. In Laos they are pretty much the sole contractors but in Thailand and Malaysia, where Belt and Road projects have run into harder bargaining with their hosts, there is more negotiation around construction work and the costs of the rolling stock.

The railway’s backers focus more on how it will bring China and Southeast Asia together, triggering a surge of trade and travel across the region. They acknowledge the complexities of the plan but say it will make more economic sense as offshoots start to feed into the trunk lines. Cecil Rhodes said something similar about his railroad, claiming it would earn its returns by picking up trade all the way along the route and not from end-to-end traffic.

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