Construction of the Thai-Lao-Chinese railway has started in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeastern Thailand with the enticing prospect of high-speed trains linking China with Singapore, and possibly India, in the 2020s.
Northeastern Thailand or Isaan accounts for about a third of the kingdom’s land and population but contributes only an estimated 10 per cent of GDP, with its relative poverty partly blamed on poor transport links.
The Bangkok-based elite ignores Isaan at its peril as the region consistently decides the winner of Thai elections.
The self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies have had a political grip on Thailand’s northeast throughout the 21st century because of populist policies that have benefited its poor, agrarian communities.
Thailand’s traditional elite has broken Thaksin’s grip on power through two coups, in 2006 and 2014, but infrastructural investment might persuade Isaan that Bangkok is interested in its development.
The 873km Thai section from the capital to Nong Khai on the Laos border looks relatively straightforward compared with the challenges faced elsewhere in Asean.
The section in undulating Laos has faced problems with costs, leadership changes in Vientiane and fears that China is expecting too much investment from the impoverished communist country.
The rail line is a key piece in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, boosting trade and economic growth through a contemporary “Silk Road”, potentially reaching to West Asia and Europe.
Given the economic benefits on offer to the Chinese, it is curious that its high-speed links are becoming so bogged down in financial issues. Many of the obstacles to development of the network might be smoothed out with an injection of a trillion yen into regional government coffers.
And Asean could benefit too.
An estimated 10 per cent of Thai freight currently moves by rail despite its costs being around a sixth of road transport.
Military-appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said at the construction ceremony that he wanted Thailand to become a regional “centre of connectivity” with tracks heading east to Cambodia and west to Myanmar.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang sent a letter of congratulation, saying the railway was a Belt and Road flagship and would improve Asean’s infrastructure.
The Thai government signed two contracts worth around US$157 million with Chinese state-run enterprises this year for the rail project, providing engineering and design know-how and hiring Chinese technical advisers.
“This route is to connect to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to China, India and further to other countries,” Prayuth said at the construction site. “Thailand is developing in every aspect to become the centre of connectivity.”
Prayuth was speaking at Mor Lak Hin, where the legendary Thai king Rama V observed construction of the first railway from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima in 1868.
Last month, Thailand’s transport minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said the construction of the remaining 249km to Bangkok would begin gradually after being put out to tender next year with 2021 set as the completion target.
Six stations are being planned along the way.
Rail construction in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos has faced delays over Chinese involvement, investment-sharing, costs, interest rates, land use and where to put maintenance sites and stations.
In Cambodia, allegations of corruption dogged construction of the link from Phnom Penh and coastal Sihanoukville.
The 400km rail link to the Thai border at Poipet is expected to come in ahead of a revised schedule after delays associated with the relocation of residents along the route.
Asean offers no shining examples of democratic rights. But its governments have less of a grip on the media than is enjoyed by Beijing’s rulers and find it less easy to bulldoze entire neighbourhoods to clear a path for train tracks.
Cambodia’s Transport Minister Sun Chanthol claims the route linking Phnom Penh and Poipet is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, two years ahead of schedule.
The Vientiane-to-Kunming line has also been delayed by funding issues and fears Laos was borrowing too much for infrastructure projects.
It was reported last year that the 418km, US$6.28 billion link was expected to be completed by 2020 under more favourable terms than initially offered by China.
Beijing would allegedly pay for 70 per cent of the project although the two governments are so secretive that it is hard to know what was really agreed between Beijing and Vientiane.
While the rail network is slowly taking shape, it is clear that Chinese links to Asean and the wider world may well be far deeper in five years. This will undoubtedly have a profound impact on a region that is already increasingly beholden to the will of China.
Kunming station in southern China is the ultimate destination for the rail project. Picture credit: Wikimedia