The delay game

By Chu Daye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/10 16:53:39

China-Thailand railway project suffers yet another setback, but experts say the reasons are political

Fuxing high-speed bullet trains at the Beijing South Railway Station Photo: IC

The China-Thailand railway project, well known for its repeated timetable delays, has yet again experienced another hiccup. But this time around, experts are saying that the reasons for the setback stem from economic and political factors rather than technical ones. They also warn that given the project's sluggish track record, there might be even more unexpected interruptions down the road, especially due to differing efforts from both sides.

The China-Thailand railway project has bumped into fresh delays due to issues with the project's environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, State-run broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported on Friday, citing Thai media outlets.

However, the delay, the latest of a string of setbacks that have tarnished the project, is seen by experts and insiders as a sign that the Thai government is reluctant to push forward with the project, suggesting there are more deep-rooted, political factors at work.

A track record

The China-Thailand railway project goes back to the era when former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was in power. In October 2013, Thailand and China signed an agreement concerning China's rail technology exports along with Thailand's agricultural products imports.

After a military coup that ousted Shinawatra in 2014, the two countries subsequently reaffirmed their intention on the railway cooperation in a memorandum of understanding.

Since then, the suggested timeframe for the construction of the railway has been repeatedly pushed back due to various issues, including route designs and costs.

Even if construction of the railway project begins this October, it would be two years late than the date current Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha originally proposed, according to a report by Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing.

According to CCTV, the project's construction will have to be pushed back another two months from its new scheduled start time of November pending approvals from the EIA report and the agreement of some redesigns.

The news comes as hundreds of Chinese railway engineers receive training from Thai experts on Thai laws and regulations, and after China and Thailand inked two deals earlier in September, one for the project's design and the other for the supervision services to be provided by Chinese experts. The two deals are worth 5.2 billion baht ($157 million) in total.

Reasons behind the delay

Zhou Zhenhao, a Chinese entrepreneur who has been doing business in Thailand for 15 years, said he is "not at all surprised" that the new delay has occurred.

After the US showed its discontent with Thailand and its military coups, Thai authorities are pretending to lean toward China and Russia in the hopes that the US and the West ease their criticism of the country.

And as for the railway project, surprise hiccups are just "delaying techniques" on behalf of Thailand, as the Thai authorities see it as a political project, Zhou told the Global Times on Sunday.

"Fundamentally, Thailand still leans toward the US and Japan. And there is also fear over the influx of Chinese brought by the Pan-Asia railway network," Zhou said.

"Chinese railway experts have sound plans in addressing environmental damage railway construction might cause, such as protecting antelopes on the grasslands or the karst landscape in southern China, so this shouldn't be a big problem," said Sun Zhang, a rail expert and professor at Shanghai Tongji University.

Sun noted that instead, the real reasons behind the delays could be politically motivated.

Zhou Fangye, associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Global Times on Sunday that it can be said that the willingness of the Chinese side is stronger than that of the Thai side in building the railway.

"The Thai side is putting more emphasis on attracting more Chinese investment and cooperation to develop its coastal areas, but many Thais can only see limited economic gain from a railway that links its capital with its northeastern provinces, Laos and then Southwest China's Yunnan Province," Zhou said.

"[Thailand's] emphasis is on the Eastern Economic Corridor, with expressways, ports, airports and industrial parks, and these projects are considered more likely to yield short-term benefits. In contrast, a high-speed railway project has only a dim outlook on short-term rewards," Zhou noted.

Within the current plan of the China-Thailand railway project, a dwindled version of its original, the two sides are to build a high-speed link between Bangkok and Thailand's northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, stretching along 253 kilometers and costing some 179 billion baht.

This link is just the start-up stretch of the overall China-Thailand rail project, which has been designed to ultimately link Southwest China's Yunnan Province with northeastern Thailand via Laos.

"So the Thai side wants more discounts from China, and plans to use such discounts as bargaining chips to make Japan further concede in the two country's high-speed railway project. But now, Japan cannot make any moves with its election at home, so what about China's take on the project? It has to slow down and wait," Zhou noted.

Sun told the Global Times on Monday that a clash of technical standards is also playing out.

"The China-Thailand railway is critical for the expansion of Chinese railway standards, which compete with European and Japanese standards for dominion. But opponents have fully been aware of China's competitiveness, especially after China unveiled its homegrown Fuxing bullet train [series]," Sun said.

Furthermore, "Malaysia and Singapore have sent overtures for Chinese railway standards, while Thailand has become the last battleground for Japan to resist the expansion of Chinese standards. As Japan conceded a lot in India's railway project, it is possible that it will also do similar things in Thailand," noted Sun.

Agreeing with Zhou the entrepreneur, Sun said that as for Thailand's shadow-boxing, China should wait and see how things unfold.

"It should be noted that Thai Prime Minister Prayut's government wishes that the cooperation with China can make headway, but the Thai bureaucratic officialdom may think otherwise… Many technocrats within the Thai bureaucracy are inclined toward the Japanese. There are glitches," Zhou from the CASS said. "For instance, not long ago, Prayut had to exert so-called absolute power to allow Chinese engineers to bypass an exam stipulated by Thai regulation."

According to Thai law, foreign engineers are required to take exams before they start working on engineering projects in Thailand.

However, in June, Prayut exercised the so-called Article 44 to absolute power in order to exempt Chinese engineers who will be employed by the China-Thailand rail project so that they will not need to take exams to obtain engineering licenses as normally required by Thai law, according to Thai media reports.

Other projects fine

Zhou from the CASS said that besides the railway project, China's other projects in Thailand are usually of a commercial nature and that there is no other current large-scale, state-level project to be compared with the China-Thailand railway project.

As long as such commercial projects are in line with Thailand's needs and are compliant to the incumbent laws and regulations, they should face little hurdles, Zhou said.

"But as a grand project, the railway project is not so fitting to Thailand's regulations and planning. So there will be break periods," Zhou said.


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