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China's rail dream is slowly taking shape in Thailand

Aug 01. 2014
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By The Straits Times/ANN

Thailand's ruling junta, after initially putting on hold the country's high-speed rail projects, has changed its mind. It now plans to build almost 1,400km of high-speed rail track linking it to neighbouring Laos.

The news must come as a relief for China, whose plan to secure cheap, fast overland access to Southeast Asia hit a roadblock when the military seized power in May 22 and put a stop to the Puea Thai party-led government's mega projects.

While the development would no doubt boost trade, its bilateral implications were also apparent. Sino-Thai relations have grown cosier since the coup as Beijing was quick to recognise the Thai junta. Much of the Western world condemned the power seizure.

Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha personally met visiting Chinese businessmen just two weeks after the coup. Acting Thai foreign minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow visited China last month to take part in a strategic bilateral dialogue.

The junta's foreign affairs adviser Somkid Jatusripitak followed up this week by meeting Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao. They reportedly discussed how China could participate in Thailand's infrastructure projects.

"China has a longstanding policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states," says Alexander Neill, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Its grand plan, he says, is to secure strategic access through Southeast Asia that will enhance trade as well as its influence in the region, in relation to the United States and Japan.

Nudging this plan even closer to reality are several developments around the region.

Singapore and Malaysia, for example, are in talks to build a high-speed rail link between their capitals.

Meanwhile, landlocked Laos - sandwiched between China and Thailand - wants to build a 420km rail link between the southern Chinese city of Kunming and its own capital, Vientiane. 

It needs a US$7.2 billion loan from China just to get the project going. This would amount to almost 90 per cent of its gross domestic product - a financial burden it cannot afford, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The Laotian tracks would run across numerous tunnels and bridges. Still, they would pose a smaller hurdle than the demise of Thailand's bullet train plan. That would turn the Laotian project into a white elephant, as the more lucrative markets for China actually lie further south, in Thailand.

For several months this year, it did look as if Thailand's fast train plans were off the table. In March, as anti-government protesters occupied parts of Bangkok, the Constitutional Court threw out a financing plan for the government's infrastructure projects, which included the high-speed train network.

Two months later, the government was deposed by the military. The new junta promised to scrutinise all large projects and junk superfluous ones. 

Since Thailand's ageing railway system badly needed basic upgrades in the form of double tracks, high-speed rail seemed bound for the chopping block.

Not now. According to the Thai Ministry of Transport, the trains would run at 160kmh rather than the speeds of 200kmh or more seen elsewhere.

One route would travel 655km from the border town of Chiang Khong to Ayutthaya province in central Thailand. Another would see freight carried 737km from Nong Khai, across the Mekong River from Vientiane prefecture, to the Thai port and industrial estate of Map Ta Phut.

China's grand vision is slowly taking shape.

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