Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the need for a hastened construction of the high-speed railway connecting China and Thailand, advocating for the advancement of an ambitious Southeast Asian network. This development aligns with the Belt and Road initiative, a global trade and infrastructure plan spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping, envisioning a high-speed railway network linking Kunming in southwestern China to Singapore.
The Belt and Road Initiative’s Vision
Under the Belt and Road initiative, three routes originating in Kunming pass through Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, converging in Bangkok. The primary focus is on establishing seamless connectivity and boosting economic cooperation. However, the construction of the Thai section has faced delays, prompting the call for acceleration.
Challenges and Progress
Thailand aims to have the 873-km high-speed railway section operational by 2028. While Foreign Minister Wang did not specify a timeframe, his call emphasizes the urgency for progress. Challenges, including cost-sharing and the impact of COVID-19, have led to delays, with some labeling the project as a potential “fiscal trap.”
China-Laos-Thailand Connectivity Concept
Promoting Early Implementation
During discussions with Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, Wang urged the early implementation of the China-Laos-Thailand connectivity concept. This initiative is integral to the broader vision of enhancing regional connectivity and trade.
Construction Status and Expectations
Thailand reports that the first phase, spanning from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, is over 15% complete and is anticipated to be operational by 2027. The subsequent leg, connecting Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai province, bordering Laos, is expected to be ready by 2028.
Overcoming Previous Delays
The Thai section encountered setbacks in 2016 when Bangkok rejected Chinese financing, citing high-interest rates. A revised agreement saw Thailand bearing the entire construction cost of 179 billion baht ($5 billion) for the first phase, with China focusing on systems installation, design, and train procurement.
Future Connections and Uncertainties
The second phase aims to link Nakhon Ratchasima to Nong Khai province, eventually connecting to China. However, uncertainties loom over the section connecting Bangkok with Malaysia and Singapore after Kuala Lumpur halted the plan previously.
Financial Considerations and Outlook
Navigating financial considerations, the exchange rate ($1 = 35.5800 baht) adds a layer of complexity to the billion-dollar railway project. Thailand’s commitment to funding the initial phase underscores the economic implications and collaboration between the nations.
Uncertainties in Regional Expansion
While progress is evident in the Thai section, uncertainties persist in the broader regional expansion, particularly concerning the connection to Malaysia and Singapore. The geopolitical landscape and economic factors play pivotal roles in shaping the future of this ambitious railway network.