The days when China’s exports mainly depended on jeans and toys are long gone. China’s export-oriented economy now has a new name card: high speed railway technology. To say that the development of China’s high speed railway since 2008 is a success story is an understatement. It is a miracle in itself. In just seven (2008-2015) years, China has developed the longest network of high speed railway (about 16,000 km with the expectation of adding another 16,000 km by 2020) in the world as well as some of the best technologies related to high speed railway development. Besides its obvious economic and technological successes, China’s high speed railway also has huge foreign policy implications in three ways.
First and foremost, China’s high speed railway can help its foreign policy in facilitating the ambitious ‘one belt, one road’ strategy. The core of China’s ‘one belt, one road’ strategy is interconnectivity, which is exactly what high speed railway can help achieve. China is now in talks with 28 countries, Russia and Thailand among them, about cooperation in high speed railway technology. Many of these countries are key players in the ‘one belt, one road’ plan. China’s Permier Li Keqiang has actively promoted China’s high speed railway technology in many different visits with some success. Thus, it is no exaggeration that the success of China’s ‘one belt, one road’ strategy depends on China’s high speed railway diplomacy.
Second, high speed railway can enhance China’s national security, particularly in its northwestern and southwestern regions. There is already a rail line connecting Urumqi, capital city of the restive Xinjiang province, and Lanzhou, another strategically important city in Northwest China. This can help the Chinese government combat domestic terrorism which is on the rise in Xinjiang. This rail line will be further extended to Central Asian countries, and eventually will be connected to European cities, thus shortening the distance of trade and psychology between China and Europe. This is of great importance especially as the United States has shifted its strategic attention back to Asia. To avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. in the Asia Pacific, China’s ‘March West’ strategy is a smart choice and high speed railway diplomacy is a major part of this ‘March West’ strategy. In addition, key countries like Thailand and Laos will be connected to the central city of Kunming in Southwestern China. If successful, this rail line will give China tremendous strategic advantage and even dominance in parts of Southeast Asia.
Third, high speed railway technology can help promote China’s international image and soft power. Although China’s economy has been a huge success for the last three decades, many in the West still view China mainly as the world’s factory with cheap exports like shoes and toys. To some degree this is true, given China’s comparative economic advantages in those sectors with cheap and abundant labor. But as China gradually transforms itself into a high tech powerhouse and moves up the economic ladder, it is imperative for China to develop economic sectors that can sustain its growth in the future. And high speed railway can exactly play this role as it involves huge capital, advanced technology, and domestic innovation. If China’s high speed railway technology can be exported to other countries successfully, it would greatly enhance China’s international image as a “tech power” like Germany and Japan. Indeed, China already can build high speed railway more cheaply and more quickly than its Western competitors. Very soon, the whole world will start viewing China’s economic power with more respect, thus increasing China’s international influence. And because economic power is a major source of national soft power, China’s success in high speed railway definitely would strengthen its soft power.
However, China needs to be careful in several areas to effectively play the high speed railway card in its foreign relations. One area is to change some of China’s state-owned firms’ past behavior such as their lack of transparency and inadequate care for local population’s concerns as evidenced by the failed rail link project in Mexico recently. Another issue is that some countries might not feel comfortable when closely connected to China, creating a situation of dependence on China. Vietnam is good example in this regard. How China addresses such concerns will determine how successful its high speed railway diplomacy can be.