Thailand’s recent promise to complete a long-overdue high-speed rail linking it to China via Laos within six years is reigniting questions about the country’s commitment and whether the $12 billion megaproject will deliver. its fruits.
Officials from the transport and foreign ministries told reporters on July 6 that Thailand will complete the 609-kilometre line from the capital Bangkok to the Lao border at Nong Khai, now only 5% built, to 2028. Nong Khai is just across the Mekong River from the Lao capital Vientiane, where a high-speed train to the Lao-China border came into service in December.
With trains running at a maximum speed of 250 km/h, the new line will collapse the time it now takes to travel Bangkok-Nong Khai on existing standard gauge tracks.
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 says 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 with the bustling ports of Singapore via high-speed trains criss-crossing Laos, Thailand and Malaysia in a key part of its major Belt and Road initiative. .
When Thailand began planning its portion of the line with China more than a decade ago, the goal was to finish around the same time Laos completed its own 414-kilometre stretch, Ruth Banomyong, a professor of international trade, transportation and logistics. at Thailand’s Thammasat University, she told VOA. But with that goal long since abandoned, he said top government transportation officials were yet to commit to a new goal last month at a seminar he attended, making the July 6 announcement “a bit confused”.
Ruth said the new goal was feasible but may be more of a political statement than a “technical one”, made with an eye toward national elections scheduled for next year and Prayut’s fragmented coalition government looking increasingly unstable. .
“The prime minister is probably at his lowest point in terms of various [opinion] polls that have been released, and he wants to stay in power, but he needs to have something to show for himself,” Ruth said. “So they need to put this project back in the public eye, saying oh yeah, it’s going to get done.”
He said growing frustration in Beijing with the pace of Thailand’s progress may also have played a role in the announcement.
“The fact that it was announced after a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi makes it seem like they are feeling some pressure to at least give the impression that they are moving forward with this project,” Greg Raymond said. , a professor at the Australian National University who studies China’s growing connections to mainland Southeast Asia.
“But when you look at the pattern of [Thailand’s] decision-making, the pattern of action… you have to question the degree of commitment”, he added.
Analysts say the line, once completed, will help connect some of Southeast Asia’s largest and most dynamic economies with landlocked South China, giving the underdeveloped region a much-needed boost.
Like 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 probably because China wouldn’t like something like that so close by. At the same time, he added, linking southern China with some major ports in mainland Southeast Asia would relieve pressure on China’s vital sea trade routes in case of 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 United States. [U.S. Navy’s] 7th Fleet, particularly in the Straits of Malacca, so I think there is that kind of strategic imperative,” Raymond said.
cost and benefit
For Thailand, the new line could mean more exports and investment from China.
Ruth, however, said it will take decades, not years, for the $12 billion project to pay for itself, and only if the government also invests in the additional freight and passenger services needed to realize the line’s full potential. Done right, she added, the line could also fuel new growth and development along its route through rural northeast Thailand.
But Ruth said the government has yet to share its forecasts for key factors like passenger numbers or cargo traffic, making an accurate 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…good infrastructure that isn’t fully utilized, so that’s really the risk.” he warned. .
Bryan Tse, a Southeast Asia analyst for The Economist Intelligence Unit, said the high-speed rail line’s focus, for now, appears to be on passengers, not freight, reducing the chances that Thailand can recover the $12 billion in 10 or even 20 years. . If the main goal was to boost freight traffic, he said China would probably already have focused on improving the network of regular train tracks that cross Southeast Asia, which would be cheaper.
But the project does not necessarily have to pay for itself directly to pay Thailand in other ways, Tse added.
“If doing 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.
Still, analysts say Thailand is likely to remain hesitant about the project; $12 billion is a lot, and the added pressure the pandemic has put on the country’s economy is only going to make it more difficult to move forward on the line to Laos, not to mention any high-speed lines that could eventually be built south of Bangkok to Malaysia. .
Raymond said Thailand is also wary of any move, including the high-speed rail line, that might bring China too close for comfort.
“They really don’t want to be drawn into 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 of them. This is classic hedging behaviour, but it is very strong with Thailand.”
Now that Laos has finished its stretch of the line, analysts agreed that China is likely to turn its attention to seeing Thailand pick up the pace.
Whatever their reservations, Raymond said, their Thai partners “might eventually feel like they have to.”