Cambodia and Thailand have reconnected a cross-border railway after 46 years as Asean’s rail links gradually improve.
The military-appointed Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman prime minister, travelled from Aranya Prathet on the Thai side of the border the short distance to Cambodia’s Poipet. The service was cancelled in 1973 during Cambodia’s civil war.
The line between the border and Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, was completed last year, offering a welcome alternative to the rutted road.
The railway to Thailand was partly destroyed before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975 and passenger services are due to resume this year.
Asean is taking faltering steps towards establishing cross-border rail links.
Thailand and Malaysia are planning a high-speed railway line between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, with the 1,400km journey due to take about six hours.
The strategy is to link Singapore with China, although Laos presents numerous challenges.
Thailand decided in 2016 against Chinese financing for its link between Laos and Malaysia because of the high interest rates being offered. Instead, it decided to fund the Bt170 billion (US$5.3 billion) Thai section itself.
So far only 3.5km of the line have been constructed in Thailand but the Transport Ministry said this week that the first section leading to Bangkok was due to be completed in two to three years.
Thailand, Laos and China are due to sign an agreement today (Thursday) at a Beijing conference to build a railway bridge across the Mekong River, connecting the Thai border province of Nong Khai and the Lao capital Vientiane, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Laos is seeing heavy Chinese investment in transport, a border economic zone, hydropower dams, schools and military hospitals.
China is keen to gain access to the Mekong along with Laotian minerals and rubber.
Mountainous Laos presents a challenge for the China-Laos railway. The route between the northern border and Vientiane, on the Thai border, requires the construction of more than 150 bridges and 50 tunnels, two of which were recently completed.
China is Vientiane’s largest foreign investor and aid provider and its second largest trading partner.
Thailand is the largest trade partner of the landlocked country of 6.8 million people.
It is set to cover 70 per cent of the China-Laos railway with Vientiane paying for the rest, which is largely due to be covered by Chinese bank loans.
But in Laos, public debt has reached more than 65 per cent of GDP, largely because of China’s “debt diplomacy”. Analysts fear Laos could enter a similar trap to Sri Lanka which, when facing significant debts, leased its strategic port of Magampura to China in 2017. Meanwhile, shambolic Venezuela owes China an estimated US$20 billion.
The old rail bridge in Poipet, Cambodia. Picture credit: Wikimedia