Thailand sets 2028 target to complete high-speed rail link with China

Thailand’s recent promise to complete a long-delayed high-speed rail linking it to China via Laos within six years rekindles doubts about the country’s commitment and the profitability of the $12 billion megaproject. .

Transport and foreign ministry officials told reporters on July 6 that Thailand would complete the 609-kilometer line between the capital, Bangkok, and the Laotian border at Nong Khai, now only 5 percent built, d ‘ by 2028. Nong Khai is just across the Mekong. the capital of Laos, Vientiane, where a high-speed train to the Lao-Chinese border was put into service in December.

With trains traveling at a maximum speed of 250 km/h, the new line will collapse the time the Bangkok-Nong Khai journey will now take on existing standard gauge tracks.

This handout released by the presidential palace on July 11, 2022 shows Indonesian President Joko Widodo (right) shaking hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta. (Photo by Rusman/Indonesian Presidential Palace/AFP)

The 2028 announcement came a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai in Bangkok. A Thai Foreign Ministry statement on Wang’s visit said the meeting included talks on a “Thailand-Laos-China connectivity development corridor”.

The project is part of Beijing’s long-term plans to link China’s Yunnan province to the bustling ports of Singapore via high-speed trains crossing Laos, Thailand and Malaysia as part of its major Belt and Road Initiative.

Cautious commitment

When Thailand began planning its portion of the line with China more than a decade ago, the aim was to do so around the same time as Laos completed its own 414 kilometer stretch, Ruth Banomyong, professor of international trade, transport and logistics at Thammasat University in Thailand, told VOA. But with that target long abandoned, he said senior government transport officials were still uncommitted to a new target last month at a seminar he attended, making the July 6 announcement ” a little confusing.”

Ruth said the new target was achievable but was perhaps more of a political statement than a ‘technical’ statement, made ahead of national elections due next year and the coalition government agitated from Prayut who seems increasingly unstable.

“The Prime Minister is probably at rock bottom in terms of various [opinion] polls that have come out, and he wants to stay in power, but he has to have something to show for himself,” Ruth said. “So they have to put this project back in the public eye, saying, oh yeah, it’s going to be done.”

He said growing frustration in Beijing over Thailand’s pace of progress may also have played a role in the announcement.

“The fact that this is announced after a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gives the impression that they feel some pressure to at least look like they are going ahead with this project” said Greg Raymond, a lecturer at the Australian National University studying China’s growing ties with mainland Southeast Asia.

“But when you look at the model of [Thailand’s] the decision-making, the action plan… the degree of commitment must be questioned,” he added.

Analysts say the line, when completed, will help connect some of Southeast Asia’s biggest and fastest growing economies to the landlocked south of China, giving the underdeveloped region a much needed boost. necessary.

FILE - A map illustrating China's Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, or the so-called megaproject

FILE – A map illustrating China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, or the so-called One Belt, One Road megaproject, is on display at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, China , January 18, 2016 .

As with much of the Belt and Road Initiative, Raymond said, it also builds on Beijing’s broader goal of forging a China-centric regional economy and exercising that position to bend the foreign policies of other countries to his will. He pointed to Thailand’s abandonment of plans years ago to host a NASA climate change monitoring program, which he said was likely because China wouldn’t like to have something. like that so close. At the same time, he added, connecting southern China to some of mainland Southeast Asia’s major ports would ease the pressure on China’s vital maritime trade routes in the event of a conflict.

“If there is a conflict between China and the United States, I think one of the things that China is vulnerable to is a blockade by the [U.S. Navy’s] 7th Fleet, particularly in the Straits of Malacca, so I think there’s that kind of strategic imperative,” Raymond said.

Cost and benefit

For Thailand, the new line could mean more exports to and investment from China.

Ruth, however, said it will take decades, not years, for the $12 billion project to pay off, and only if the government also invests in the additional freight and passenger services needed to bring out the full potential of the line. Done well, he added, the line could also spur new growth and development along its route through Thailand’s rural northeast.

But Ruth said the government has yet to share its forecasts for key factors such as passenger numbers or freight traffic, making a rigorous assessment of the project impossible.

“What we tend to see is that a lot of these forecasts are very, very optimistic, and that’s why sometimes you end up having white elephants…beautiful infrastructure that’s not being fully utilized, that’s So really is the risk,” he warned. .

Bryan Tse, Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the high-speed rail line so far appears to be focused on passengers, not freight, reducing costs. chances that Thailand can recover the 12 billion dollars in 10 or even 20 years. . If the main goal was to boost freight traffic, he said China would probably have already focused on upgrading the regular rail network criss-crossing Southeast Asia, which would be cheaper.

But the project doesn’t have to be directly self-financing to be profitable for Thailand in other ways, Tse added.

“If building this railway means you get the goodwill of the Chinese government…then you can get a lot of things in return politically and economically, in terms of investment, for example,” he said.

FILE - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha stands next to a model high-speed train during the groundbreaking ceremony for cooperation between Thailand and China on the development of the Bangkok-Nong high-speed train Khai in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand on December 21, 2017.

FILE – Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha stands next to a model high-speed train during the groundbreaking ceremony for cooperation between Thailand and China on the development of the Bangkok-Nong high-speed train Khai in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand on December 21, 2017.

Still, analysts say Thailand is likely to remain hesitant about the project; $12 billion is a lot, and the added strain the pandemic has put on the country’s economy will only make it more difficult to progress on the line to Laos, let alone any high-speed line that may possibly to be built south of Bangkok towards Malaysia.

Raymond said Thailand was also wary of any move, including the high-speed rail line, which could bring China too close for its comfort.

“They don’t want to be dragged into, really, a Beijing-centric economy if they think it’s going to reduce their freedom to maneuver,” he said. “They always seek to balance their relationships; they don’t want to become too dependent on any one of them. It’s classic hedging behavior, but it’s very strong with Thailand.

Now that Laos is done with its stretch of line, analysts agreed that China is likely to focus its attention on Thailand picking up the pace.

Whatever their reservations, Raymond said, their Thai partners “might eventually feel compelled to do so.”

Jose P. Rogers