Rail deal landmark in ‘soft power’ export

By Huang Rihan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-9-5 19:03:03

China Railway Construction Corporation announced in late August that it will sign a framework agreement with Thailand in early September to construct a high-speed railway that will link up with a route to China's southwestern city of Kunming. The groundbreaking ceremony is slated to be held in late October.

Since March 2013, this high-speed rail project has met with quite a few ups and downs. Due to Thailand's political reshuffle, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed two memorandums of understanding with his Thai counterparts, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013, and the incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014, to make sure the project will go ahead.

Besides, there have been six rounds of negotiations haunted by many naysayers. The fulfillment of the agreement is a hard-won result.

Although the political shift has stalled some foreign investment projects, Thailand's demand for railway improvements still exists. While Thailand opened its first railway in late 19th century, the total distance of its network stands at just 4,363 kilometers.

Its network has been neglected, accidents occurring from time to time due to aging facilities and outdated management. Railways remain a barrier for the country in terms of economic and social development.

China's outstanding performance in railway construction and management has gained it a worldwide reputation. China's state-of-the-art technologies and cost performance can meet Thailand's demand properly.

The success of this cooperation will unlock a new model of cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries. This railway will serve as a role model for China to advance its "One Belt, One Road" initiative across Southeast Asia.

The high-speed rail agreement is a landmark project indicating China's export of "soft power" in aspects such as technology. According to the agreement, China will provide a whole package of plans, including designing routes, building infrastructure, and offering equipment and vehicles. This will change the old way in which China aids Southeast Asian countries solely through investment.

The new pattern will help improve the technologies of the destination country, which in return will further China's technologies.

China will no longer be remembered as a country that only exports counterfeit and low-quality products, but instead, it will be labeled as a hi-tech country.

If the high-speed rail project runs smoothly, it will help China acquire more contracts in Indonesia, Myanmar and Laos. This will accelerate the construction of a trans-Asia railway network, which is aimed to enhance connectivity between China and Southeast Asia. If the network can be built as expected, industries depending on the lines will thrive. It will greatly benefit the Southeast Asian economy.

This high-speed rail project can be seen as an initial success of China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative. Southeast Asia is a crucial part in the initiative, and the project will lay a solid foundation for its advancement.

It could be anticipated that besides the railway, China can reinforce its cooperation with Thailand in many other spheres, such as infrastructure and connectivity building, especially after the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank goes into full operation.

The "One Belt, One Road" initiative is a multilateral project between China and Southeast Asian nations. Only when they cooperate, can they share the benefits.

Considering that the US views Southeast Asia as a key region, and is trying to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN to contain China, the "One Belt, One Road" initiative can clearly prove that forging a community of shared interests and shared destiny is reciprocal. China's high-speed rail should act as a locomotive for the endeavor.

The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and a research fellow with the Maritime Silk Road Institute, Huaqiao University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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