China-Thailand Rail Project: New Movement, Old Problems?

Despite the enthusiasm of some, challenges still remain.

China-Thailand Rail Project: New Movement, Old Problems?
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

Long-running talks between China and Thailand over construction of a high speed railway line linking the two countries appear to be nearing completion, with an agreement expected to be signed in September and work on the first section to begin a month later.

If indeed completed as scheduled, the work will mark a significant step forward for what China calls its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“It is a new significant progress that the project made after being approved by Thai cabinet and Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly,” the official Chinese news agency Xinhua said in a statement issued over the weekend.

According to the news agency, construction of the first phase, a 253 kilometer stretch of railway from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, will be built in four sections, starting with a 3.5 km line, the second will be built over 11 km, and the third and fourth will cover 119 km each. A second phase was expected to extend the railway from Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai on Thai-Lao border.

“Preparation work for the second phase of the project will start soon,” Xinhua said.

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Agreements on design work of the first phase of the Thailand-China railway project, price and  supervision of the contract were reached during the 20th meeting of the Joint Committee on Railway Cooperation between Thailand and China in two years.

The price tag was not disclosed.

Xinhua said the Chinese side would be responsible for the design work and supervision, which would incorporate Thai engineers and architects while the Thais would be responsible for construction work. The project was expected to use Thai equipment and materials wherever possible.

Both sides also agreed to accelerate preliminary work currently underway to meet the September/October deadlines for construction work to begin.

The project, Xinhua said “will improve Thailand’s transport system, enforce its role as the transport hub in the region, boost economic growth in the country, especially its northeastern part, contribute to the Eastern Economic Corridor project and benefit other countries along the railway.”

Despite the enthusiasm evident in Chinese state media, linking mainland Southeast Asia with China through Laos, as well as Beijing’s infrastructure initiatives in the subregion more generally, still has its problems. Among other things, the Chinese are struggling to convince the authorities in Vientiane of the merits of a high speed railway running north-south across the country.

Laos has been inching away from China and closer towards Beijing’s rival Vietnam following a change in leadership within the one party state early last year, and there are major concerns over the billions of dollars required to fund the project, which Laos can ill-afford.

Previous transport promises have also fallen short of the mark.

The all weather highway linking Cambodia to China through Laos is yet to be completed, with the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen dragging its feet over construction of a small section of highway on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Issues, including corruption, financing, and politics have also overshadowed construction of rail lines expected to link the Thai border with Phnom Penh and eventually Ho Chi Minh City, where existing rail heads north into China.

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Historical Chinese-Vietnamese enmity, among other things, has lifted the importance of the Thai-Laos-China rail route. And with the backing of the Thai junta, few doubt the high speed link from Bangkok to Thailand’s northern border will eventually succeed despite the zig zags it will encounter along the way.

But for the link to matter, it must be replicated across other countries as well, including Laos. And here, success is far from certain.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt