It is a well known fact that the “New Silk Road” project of China (NSR) implies the creation of a wide and dense transport network covering the entire Eurasian continent. However, the further this network shall spread, the more robust shall its central part, located in China and close to it, Asian countries, be. Consequently, one of the most important areas in the development of the NSR for the People’s Republic of China is the 10 neighboring ASEAN member states (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
The idea of establishing a railway link with ASEAN arose in China earlier than the time the NSR initiative was put forward. This step became feasible in the 2000s, when economic relations between the PRC and ASEAN began expanding rapidly. In 2002, the idea of establishing a free trade area between China and ASEAN countries was articulated. In 2010, the ASEAN-China Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was signed. Since then, there has been a gradual liberalization of trade relations between the parties, a move that has multiplied the volume of the turnover, which is expected to reach USD 1 trillion by 2020.
Naturally, under these circumstances, the countries developed a desire to improve their transport communication. To connect China with the ASEAN states located on the Eurasian continent, there is need for an extensive Kunming-Singapore railway, which will cover virtually the entire Indochina Peninsula. Kunming City District is the centre of the southwestern China province of Yunnan. Even in ancient times, this area functioned as the crossroads of trade routes connecting Southeast Asia with India and Tibet. It has maintained its status as an important transport hub until now. Kunming hosts one of the largest airports in China –Changshui. In addition, Kunming is the largest railway junction in Yunnan Province from which routes to different areas of China, and also to Vietnam, diverge.
The Kunming-Singapore railway network should connect China and the ASEAN countries located on the Indochina Peninsula. It will pass through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and reach as far as Singapore. These roads should become the most important land transport system in Asia. In the spring of 2011, the media reported the start of construction of the first section running from Kunming to the Mohan Checkpoint on the China-Laos border. Then it was stated that the entire Kunming-Singapore road should be built by 2020.
In September 2013, China Railway Corporation reported that it had already built 150 kilometers of the road to Singapore, and that Chinese builders were preparing to construct an additional 650 km.
In December 2016, the construction of the next section of the Kunming-Singapore Network passing through Laos was launched from the Mohan Checkpoint to the Laotian province of Vientiane. The beginning of the work was marked by a solemn ceremony attended by Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and other high-level representatives of the Lao and Chinese governments. The ceremony was intended to highlight the importance of the project to both sides. As for China, it was an important step in developing its trade relations with ASEAN and the possibility of developing its south-western provinces, and for Laos, it was the largest investment project that should contribute significantly to the economic and social development of the whole country.
It is known that the cost of this 400-kilometre road, which will require the construction of numerous tunnels and bridges, will amount to about CNY 40 billion, 70 per cent of which the Chinese side intends to provide. The work shall be carried out based on Chinese technologies, and the railway shall conform to Chinese standards, highlighting its connection with the PRC railway system.
Thailand is also cooperating with China. In December 2016, Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi met with the head of the Thai Foreign Ministry Don Pramudwinai. Among the various issues of bilateral cooperation, they also discussed the China-Thailand Railway project. Following the meeting, Wang Yi and Don Pramudwinai informed the press that both countries considered the draft to be an important part of the China-Thai cooperation, which is essential both for the NSR project and for the economic development of the Kingdom of Thailand. Wang Yi also added that the PRC is ready to provide Thailand with its latest technology for high-speed railways, and that the project would enable Thailand to become an important transport hub of regional importance and one of the economic centers of ASEAN.
Indonesia is also in the sphere of interests of Chinese railway workers. Despite its island location, the country also needs to develop a railway system to better link its hinterland to the ports through which it communicates with other states. The main partner of Indonesia in the railway sector is Russia, which has been entrusted to participate in the reform of the entire Indonesian railway system. However, China, with its advanced technologies, is also a player. In January 2016, the Chinese company China Railway Group Limited began building a 140 kilometer long high-speed railroad from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to one of the largest cities in the country, Bandung. The work is scheduled to be completed by 2018. As Indonesia is one of the most developed ASEAN states, cooperation with it is an important step for China in implementing the NSR project.
At the same time, China is developing a railway communication not only with its neighbours, but also within its territory. At the end of July 2017, the passenger train “Ancient Path from the Tang Empire to India” embarked on its maiden cruise from Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, to the second largest city in Tibet, Shigatse. According to Chinese media reports, the train should show the value of the Qinghai-Tibetan railway for the tourism industry and help integrate Tibet into the NSR project. The inclusion of Tibet in the NSR is being pursued not only with the obvious goal of developing this hard-to-reach region, but also to ensure the fuller integration of Tibet into China. This, in its turn, will contribute to the weakening of anti-Chinese sentiments that have lasted for 67 years since the establishment of the PRC government in Tibet.
The same effect is expected from the development of railways in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of the PRC, which also periodically calls for secession from China. Thanks to NSR, these appeals may soon be over. The main city of autonomy Urumqi has become one of the main points of NSR. From this transport hub, an important branch of the NSR begins – the path from China to Europe, running through Kazakhstan and Russia. With the development of this project, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region can expect unprecedented economic growth. The improvement of the welfare of the population and the linking to the Chinese infrastructure will keep it (and the Tibet Autonomous Region) in the PRC more securely than force methods, and will provide stability for many years to come.
Thus, it can be concluded that, through its transport projects, China has significantly strengthened its position throughout the region. The new railways in ASEAN countries will lead to the significant growth of international trade and rapid economic growth. At the same time, their new infrastructure and economy will be closely linked to the PRC and the “New Silk Road”, which will make China their main and most influential partner.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”