China eyes major SE Asia rail network

China is set to connect its developing southwestern Yunnan province to Southeast Asia with a series of high-speed rail links.

The China Daily reported that work on the project will begin in two months and will entail a 1920-kilometre track from Yunnan capital, Kunming, to Rangoon. Rail expert Wang Mengshu, from the Chinese Academy of Engineering, estimates that it will be capable of reaching speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour.

China has been keen to develop its western regions and crucial to this is connectivity for exports and trade. Mengshu added that, “The project, which aims to boost cooperation between China and Southeast Asian nations, will greatly enhance the economic development of China’s western regions”.

As well as Burma, China is also planning to build a link to Bangkok via the northern Thailand border town of Nong Khai. A link to the Laotian capital, Vientiane, is already under construction.

The rail links will also connect with the new Tavoy (Dawei) port project in southern Burma that will have a capacity to take the largest deep sea vessels and will be funded and developed largely by Thai firms.

The train lines will then potentially run all the way to regional hub Singapore, and will likely be used to take freight from southern ASEAN nations, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, north to China. This wider transport project has been termed the ‘south-south corridor’ .

The development will revolutionise public transport in Burma, which is infamous for poor roads and rail links.

“There is no technological barrier to building high-speed railways to Southeast Asian countries but China needs to take profitability into account,” Beijing Jiaotong University professor, Ji Jialun, was quoted in the China Daily as saying.

Whether the market for high-speed rail will be able to afford the fares needed to operate technologically complex transport remains to be seen, but Burma is sorely in need of an upgrade for facilities that will help bolster any economic development.

The capital for the rail link would be provided by the Chinese, the British Telegraph newspaper reported, but only in exchange for Burma’s reserves of lithium, an essential component in electric cars. It has been suggested that possession of the mineral in a post-fossil fuel era will be as strategic as oil is today.

The need for alternative transport to air travel in the future is seen as pressing by environmentalists, who note the huge carbon emissions that aeroplanes are responsible for.

China it seems is committed to rolling out high-speed rail, with ambitious plans to develop a line that could potentially take passengers from Beijing to London in only two days.

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