Thais sign China rail deal

Kunming Railway Station. China hopes to link it to Asean. Source: Wikipedia

Beijing and Bangkok have agreed the first phase of a planned high-speed railway link costing 179 billion baht (US$5.15 billion), according to the Thai transport minister.

The 873km track will link the Thai-Laos border with with ports and industrial zones in eastern Thailand.

China hopes to connect its south-western city of Kunming to Thailand via Laos, while the Thai junta hopes to upgrade its creaking train network. The junta is hoping that infrastructural development will boost the economy amid disappointing export figures and weakening consumer confidence, while distracting attention from the military’s increasingly tyrannical rule.

Earlier in 2016, Beijing estimated the project cost at 560 billion baht (US$16.09 billion), which Thailand said was too costly.

The agreement on the project comes after months of negotiations, many of which were tense, sources said.

“This project will cost 179 billion baht. This is what we agreed upon,” Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith told the media in Bangkok after a three-day bilateral meeting.

Arkhom said Thailand would pay the full construction costs, while China would provide funds for technical systems, run surveys and assist with the power supply, rolling stock and track installation.

The first phase involves a 250km railway from Bangkok to Thailand’s northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, with construction starting in December.

“Both countries want to begin this project by the end of the year and there is limited time remaining,” explained Wang Xiaotao, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

Under the deal, Thailand would retain ownership rights for the entire project, it was announced.
But Samart Ratchapolsitte, a former Democrat Party MP, said the project was unlikely to begin construction as scheduled.

He said the government should plan development around the stations to spur on the economy.
Other observers said the areas chosen for construction of the first phase were too far from the population centres.

There have reportedly been sticking points over the train project on issues like the currency of payment.

“We will have to work through any disagreements or misunderstandings,” Arkhom told the media.

Beijing is tightening its grip on Bangkok as relations with Washington have come under increasing strain since the May 2014 coup. There have been an increasing number of diplomatic visits and joint military exercises with China.