Belt and Road

Fast tracked

China’s Jakarta bullet train line to open in July


En route to Indonesia

On August 18, 12 high-speed railway engines were loaded onto a Cosco Shipping container vessel in Qingdao for the ocean journey to Indonesia.

Swaddled in green protective covering and emblazoned with red banners, the pointy-ended vehicles looked like huge crayons as they were hoisted onto the ship.

The simple silhouettes didn’t do justice to the high-tech machinery inside. These Chinese-made EMUs – Electric Multiple Units – have top speeds of 350 kilometres an hour and they are destined to run on the forthcoming Jakarta-Bandung high-speed line.

Due to open in July next year, the 140-kilometre railway will reduce travel time between the two cities to 40 minutes – down from about three hours currently. And while the project’s completion date has been delayed by four years, it is further proof of stronger investment ties between Beijing and Jakarta, as well as the continuing significance of the Belt and Road Initiative.

“Facts have proven that a sound China-Indonesia relationship not only serves the shared long-term interests of the two countries, but also has positive, far-reaching impacts regionally and globally,” claimed Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a statement in July after his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo had arrived on a formal visit.

Such visits are rarer these days because of Covid restrictions – President Widodo was the first foreign leader to be received on an individual trip in two years, although Xi hosted several heads of state and governments in February, including Russian leader Vladimir Putin, as part of the celebrations for the Winter Olympics.

China has been Indonesia’s largest trading partner since 2013 and the leading destination for its exports since 2016. Indonesia mostly provides commodities such as ferronickel, coal, copper and natural gas. Even as the Chinese economy slowed in the first half of this year, imports from Indonesia surged 34% in value.

At times, ties between the two nations have come under strain. Indonesia also maintains close relations with the United States, Australia, India and Japan – most recently inviting the latter to join US-Indonesia military exercises last month. Like many other nations in the region, it also worries about Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. China’s ‘nine-dash line’ – a much-disputed demarcation of its maritime claims in the area – overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, for instance.

Widodo, whose presidency ends in 2024, has vowed to protect its EEZ, setting the stage for future clashes. But for now, Jakarta holds the G20 presidency and is preparing more for the prospect that senior Russian officials will attend the G20 summit in Bali in November, triggering a walk-out by other participants.

Xi may or may not make the trip to Bali. In mid-October he will also put himself forward for re-election at the National People’s Congress – a step that will reconfirm his primacy in Chinese politics. Meanwhile Widodo has denied rumours that he will delay the 2024 elections to extend his own term in Indonesia, which could mean that Xi will be greeting a new Indonesian leader in a couple of years. Before then there are projects to complete, including the $8 billion rail link and an industrial park in Morowali in Sulawesi, where Tsingshan and Indonesia’s Bintang Delapan Group are building a $350 million lithium chemical plant.

As for the new railway – its main significance for the Chinese is that it is another overseas high-speed project for which they have provided all the engineering services and hardware: from the design stage, through the construction process to the shipping of the rolling stock.

“The entire line adopts Chinese technology and Chinese standards. After completion, it will become the first high-speed railway in Indonesia and Southeast Asia,” celebrated CCTV, the state broadcaster.

“Although it was a late starter, China has forged ahead in the sector for more than 30 years, moving from being a follower to a leader in building high-speed railways globally,” the China Daily added approvingly.

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