Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Is Japan’s Rail Diplomacy in Southeast Asia Moving Away From Shinkansen?

Southeast Asia is the main battlefield between Japan and China when it comes to high-speed rail.

By Shang-su Wu for
Is Japan’s Rail Diplomacy in Southeast Asia Moving Away From Shinkansen?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The recent development of Japan’s high-speed rail (HSR) projects in Southeast Asia may suggest Shinkansen leaving the center of its railway diplomacy.

Beijing began to export its own HSR systems overseas under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the last decade. Meanwhile, the Abe administration since 2012 has promoted its Shinkansen overseas as a countermeasure to balance China’s geopolitical influence. Prior to the 2010s, Japan only exported the Shinkansen once, to Taiwan in 2007. For its proponents, the Shinkansen’s safety record, high efficiency, and other excellent performance measures justify its higher cost compared to the Chinese HSR.

With regard to Sino-Japan HSR competition, Southeast Asia is the main battlefield. In the mid-2010s, several serious Sino-Japan HSR match-ups occurred in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Probably due to ample financial support, flexible approaches to engage hosting countries and relatively cheap prices, Beijing took an upper hand over Tokyo by securing three projects, compared Japan’s one project. The three Chinese HSR projects include Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima (Then Nong Khai) in Thailand and Jakarta-Bandung in Indonesia, currently under construction despite some delays, in addition to another route between Bangkok and Rayong which is in the planning stage. In contrast, Japan’s only HSR project between Bangkok and Chiang Mai has not moved beyond negotiation due to financial disagreements. Although the geostrategic consideration makes Vietnam inclined for a Japanese HSR project, the second HSR proposal this year, after a rejection in 2010, may not be promising due to the high cost and long construction period. 

In the meantime, Japan’s conventional rail projects, ranged from mass rapid transit (MRT), commuting trains to upgrading the existing networks, have been successful in Southeast Asia. Among various projects, the recently settled deal for the Jakarta-Surabaya line upgrade could be particularly important. With a total length of 730 km, Indonesia’s original plan on the line was for HSR, but it has been changed into upgrading the existing narrow gauge (1.067m) conventional route after a period of the bilateral negotiation. Despite the narrow gauge, the upgraded tracks with better conditions are planned to raise the top speed of trains to 160km/h, and it will significantly reduce the travel time by about half compared to the current services. Moreover, the upgrade project will demand less land acquisition, a significant challenge for infrastructure in Indonesia, apart from the lower costs than an HSR project. 

Compared to flamboyant HSR systems, such low-profile projects generate less media coverage, but they may suit most developing countries in Southeast and other regions better for several reasons. Lower costs would benefit hosting countries for a lighter financial burden and are thus less likely to become a debt trap. Next, the full potential of the existing infrastructure could be utilized. The conventional rail networks in Southeast Asian countries are either at meter gauge (1m) or cape gauge (1.067m), and there is still significant room for them to be modernized based on their present condition, such as lack of auto-block system, no electrification, single track and other features for improvement. Thus, to upgrade would optimize their capacity at lower costs and broader connection with established networks than building a separated HSR system of the standard gauge (1.435m). This would help mature existing systems, promoting development and economic growth that could later be turned toward implementing HSR systems. This was Japan’s experience in developing rail transport.

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In fact, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has conducted such relatively small-scaled rail projects overseas for decades, but such efforts are usually categorized as international cooperation instead of as aspects of geopolitical policy. They do not look like a counterpoint to China’s HSR diplomacy. 

Despite the high economic potential in Southeast Asia, the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur HSR project was postponed for financial reasons. This relatively cooled the region on HSR. The uncertain situation of the global economy in recent years further strengthens doubt on the financial feasibility of the big-ticket infrastructure projects, including HSR. As such, focusing on conventional rail projects may substantially progress the domestic and regional connections more than HSR.

Of course, the Chinese rail industry also has the capacity for such upgrades and other works on narrow gauged railways, evidenced in the well-known Tanzania Railway built by Chinese contractors in the 1970s and the recent project for improving the Cambodian network. However, in the face of the broad and high demands from the BRI, standardization of various projects would be a key element for efficiency. Since most Chinese rail networks are standard gauge, to replicate similar work in other countries would be important to retain the pace of development for the BRI. BRI rail projects, except for those in the former Soviet countries, are mainly standard gauges, with the Southeast Asian examples of the East-West rail link in Malaysia in addition to those HSR projects in the region. In Africa, such as Kenya and Ethiopia, Chinese rail planners also ignore the existing meter gauge rail system with the potential of improvement and separately build standard gauge. As such, upgrade existing rail network with a localized and tailored style are unlikely to be the mainstream of the BRI. 

Changing Sino-Japan relations may also narrow the place of Shinkansen in Japanese diplomacy. After the Abe-Xi summit last year with an agreement on cooperation on infrastructure and BRI, there has not been a joint HSR project by Japanese and Chinese contractors. But a confrontational approach may not be suitable for the relative détente atmosphere. To present an alternative or another paradigm with more practicability would be the niche of Japan’s rail diplomacy rather than direct competition on HSR. Therefore, Shinkansen may step back to the list of various rail systems available by the Japanese rail industry. It does not mean that the match of Shinkansen vis-à-vis Chinese HSR for specific countries will not happen again, but it would be less frequent, as Japan and China would have increasingly distinct approaches to their respective railway diplomacy. 

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow of the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.