Last week, China and Laos began track laying work in the China-Laos railway project between the two countries, which, once built, is set to be the longest railway in Asia outside of China. The milestone spotlighted the development of a key infrastructure project within the broader bilateral relationship between the two countries.
While China and Laos established diplomatic relations back in 1961, tensions continued to persist through the Cold War and ties began to warm following its conclusion in the 1990s and 2000s, with ties elevated to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership back in 2009. While challenges continue to remain for ties today – be it local discontent in some Chinese infrastructure projects or worries about Vientiane’s strategic overdependence on Beijing – the relationship has nonetheless continued to progress across various realms.
One of the projects within this is the China-Laos railway. The project – a 414-kilometer railway which will run from Boten border gate in northern Laos bordering China to Vientiane with 198-kilometer tunnels and 62-kilometer bridges, running at 160 kilometers per hour – is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and is meant to help Laos turn from a landlocked country to a landinked hub. Construction on the project begun in 2016 and it is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.
Progress on the project has continued on into 2020 amid wider developments, including the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the ruling Laos People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and the global coronavirus pandemic which has seen China provide assistance to Laos in the form of medical experts and equipment.
Last week, the project was in the spotlight again with the beginning of track laying work. Track-laying work for the China-Laos railway began in Vientiane, marking what was characterized as yet another key milestone for the project.
Per Chinese state media outlet Xinhua, the track-laying began at 10:30 a.m. on March 27, with a 500-meter-long steel rail steadily being lowered into position on the outskirts of the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Xinhua quoted Hu Bin, the project manager of China Railway No. 2 Engineering Group (CREC-2), as saying that this was the first time that the CYP500 track laying machine that laid the track down had been used in railway construction in Southeast Asia, with the machine being able to lay two kilometers of tracks per day rather than the required average daily laying progress of 1.5 kilometers.
Despite the track-laying milestone having been achieved, what this means for the broader future of the China-Laos railway project remains unclear, particularly given the challenges that the project has faced to date as well as the impact of COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the Laos-China Railway Co. Ltd (LCRC), a joint venture based in Vientiane charged with construction and future operation of the railway, has thus far been as bullish as ever in spite of these uncertainties and challenges, indicating that project construction has been advancing nonetheless and that the project will meet the scheduled completion date in 2021. Whether or not this is the case and how the project proceeds once it is operation, however, remains to be seen.