Sunday, August 29, 2010

All aboard on China's railway vision for Asia

China's so-called "high-speed railway diplomacy" has made its way to Thailand. A joint Thai-Chinese committee is exploring the feasibility of building the first standard-gauge railway in Thailand, as part of an ambitious cross-border rail programme envisioned by Beijing.

Kobsak Sabhavasu, the PM's secretary-general, recently chaired the joint committee's first meeting. For Thailand, the Nong Khai-Bangkok route is likely to be the first leg of the system. If granted approval, the Thai and Chinese governments will set up a joint-venture firm to implement the project.

Thailand's existing one-metre tracks. The proposal will herald a new era of rail development in the country. In the next stage, the Nong Khai-Bangkok route will be linked with the same-size track in Laos before crossing into southern China to join Beijing's national high-speed train network. From Bangkok, the route will be further extended to Thailand's southern region. In the following stages, China hopes the network will reach Malaysia and Singapore.

As the world's second largest economy since overtaking Japan in the second quarter of this year, China has grand designs for its high-speed railway diplomacy. Besides Southeast Asia, the Chinese plan to export technology to other parts of the continent, including Central Asia.

China's high-speed railway technology, in which passenger and cargo trains can travel at speeds of 250-350 kilometres per hour, will be showcased to deepen economic development ties with at least 17 nations in the region - Thailand included. Essentially, the Chinese will offer know-how, based on modifications of German, French and Japanese high-speed rail technology, in return for natural resources and other kinds of payments, if not hard currency.

One of China's most impressive showcases is the magnetic-levitation, or Maglev, train between Shanghai airport and the city. Another is the 114-kilometre Beijing-Tianjin high-speed railway, opened in 2008, which shortened the previous hour-and-a-half commute to just 30 minutes. Last December, China also launched the first long-distance (1,068 kilometre) high-speed line, from U-han to Guangzhou, with trains capable of travelling at 350 kilometres per hour. Such technology is comparable to Japan's world-renowned bullet trains.

In addition, China plans to build another 26,000 kilometres of new railways, including 9,200 kilometres of high-speed track, over the next three years. As a result, the country expects in the next few years to have at least 800 trains travelling nationwide at a minimum speed of 250 kilometres per hour. Eventually, one of the pan-Asian rail networks could run from Kunming in Yunnan province to Singapore, passing through Indochina, Thailand, and Malaysia. Another network could run from eastern China to Central Asia to Europe, via Germany, or from the northeast to Russia and Europe.

In cash-strapped countries, China is ready to provide financial aid to build track in return for natural resources and payment-in-kind. For example, Burma could sell minerals to China in exchange for the latter's high-speed rail investment. Central Asian and Eastern European countries that currently sell natural gas to China, are also interested in this programme.

As for Thailand, Kobsak is finalising the framework of bilateral negotiations for Cabinet approval. Before entering into any agreement, the Thai government will have to seek parliamentary endorsement because the project is considered a bilateral deal with another country under Article 190 of the Constitution.

Ultimately, Thai negotiators must ensure that the country has a fair cut of the benefits of this scheme, and that its implementation is transparent. The Nation, Bangkok

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