ASEAN dream of Trans-Asian Railway

A decade of BRI development sees the ASEAN dream of Trans-Asian Railway network taking shape, and demonstrates China’s global vision on promoting win-win cooperation, common development

Introduction – The Silk Road spirit

Over 2,000 years ago, when the world was separated by high mountains and vast oceans, Chinese ancestors opened a transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, known as the Silk Road, and created sea routes linking the East with the West, namely, the maritime Silk Road. The ancient silk routes embody the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit. In the autumn of 2013, when mankind faced daunting challenges posed by deficits of peace, development and governance, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), carrying on the Silk Road spirit and offering the world Chinese wisdom. Ten years on, from every angle, the BRI has achieved remarkable success.

BRI brings ASEAN dream closer

At a plantation in Chanthaburi, one of Thailand’s key fruit provinces, a Thai worker climbs up a 10-meter-high durian tree, cuts the fruit and throws it down to another person who catches it with a gunny sack. Like him, dozens of workers have been in a full-throttle mode, busy harvesting the thorny-shelled fruit as the durian season reaches its peak in the summer time.

Time is money. The old saying goes not only for workers, but also the country’s thousands of durian growers, who see over 90 percent of their exports go to the Chinese market every year. The shorter the delivery time, the fresher the tropical fruit tastes, and the more lucrative the profit margins are. 

Currently, the fastest way to ship Chanthaburi durians to the doorstep of Chinese consumers is to first send the cargo to the Lao capital of Vientiane by truck. It’s then uploaded to the China-Laos Railway which leaves for Kunming, capital of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The railway, a flagship project under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, entered commercial operation in December 2021. 

In June, the first China-Laos-Thailand cold-chain express under the new western land-sea corridor opened. The combination of such motor-rail transportation only takes 88 hours to ship some 500 tons of Chanthaburi-produced durians to Southwest China’s Chongqing and Chengdu, setting a record in efficiency. 

The “Durian Express” has slashed the traditional transportation time by over one-half, a “revolutionary change,” Deng Haoji, chief operating officer of Chongqing Hongjiu Fruit, told the Global Times. The traditional seaborne route takes about nine to 12 days, and is vulnerable to the impact of weather conditions that could result in long delays. 

But industry insiders believe that the express would only be the first step to unlock wider cargo flows across Asia, as a new vast Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) network – set to pass through Southeast Asia’s agricultural and industrial heartlands – has been fanning out gradually, spearheaded by the development of the BRI over the past 10 years. 

Deng and Thai fruit farmers are bullish that the delivery efficiency would be accelerated further “as the China-Laos Railway stretches further to connect with Thailand and other countries along the BRI route.” 

The rosy prospect is in sight with the construction of the China-Thailand High-Speed Railway (HSR), another backbone of the TAR network, which is planned to connect the Thai capital of Bangkok with Kunming on the basis of the China-Laos Railway. The rail link is reportedly estimated to bring down cargo transport costs by 30-50 percent in three to five years.

The TAR was a shared dream of Southeast Asia envisaged back in the 1950s, yet it was long stalled due to numerous constraints such as financing, political factors and technical issues. A watershed sprung up in 2013, when China launched the BRI, a global cooperation platform that has been clocking miraculous development and reverberating across Southeast Asia and beyond. During the past decade, the initiative proved itself to be nothing short of a “game-changer” – enabling the grand vision of the TAR to not only reinvigorate Southeast Asia, but also move in concrete steps to morph into a reality.

Across Southeast Asia, a number of landmark BRI railway projects have either been put into operation, are underway, or are in the intensive planning process. Consequently, an overarching transport network is being built up, which carries pronounced ramifications for regional connectivity and fostering shared development in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. 

Standing at the historic junction of the 10th anniversary of the BRI, industry insiders envisioned that as the BRI further gained traction, Southeast Asia would eventually have a bridge with South Asia, Central Asia and the European continent along the BRI route, unfolding an unprecedented chapter of global supply chain integration and economic growth in the next decade or so. 

The tangible success of the BRI in Southeast Asia – an important node along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – also has a demonstration effect on the practical results of BRI cooperation, which is open, inclusive, on an equal footing and mutually beneficial. It also embodies China’s vision for building a community of shared future for mankind, that is to pursue cooperation through consultation, and strive to bring into full play the strengths of all parties involved to promote greater synergy.  

With an emphasis on common development, the China-proposed initiative has offered a historic solution to the reform of the global governance system, at a time when the architecture of a multi-polar world order is clouded by rising hegemony and geopolitical tensions. The opportunities that the BRI channels into Southeast Asia, most of which is composed of developing countries, are markedly different from the ambiguous infrastructure schemes trumpeted by the US, which are nothing more than lip service and a geostrategic tool, analysts said. A view of a construction site of China-Thailand High-Speed Railway in Bangkok Photo: Courtesy of China State Construction Engineering Corporation

A view of a construction site of China-Thailand High-Speed Railway in Bangkok Photo: Courtesy of China State Construction Engineering Corporation

Vast transport network

Expectations for the TAR network have been running equally high among Malaysians. 

Muhammad Azril Hakim Bin Usop, a 20-something college graduate from the Malaysian city of Bentong, a production base for the iconic Malaysian Musang King Durian, is upbeat that the seasonal fruits from his hometown could get a ride on the grand transport network in the near future. 

He is banking on another flagship BRI project, the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) in Malaysia, which links the East Coast and the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, including the capital of Kuala Lumpur and Bentong. 

In May, construction of Kota Bharu railway station, the ECRL’s first station, which sits near the Malaysian border with Thailand, commenced. 
Standing in front of a big map that clearly tags adjacent rail stations across the Malaysia-Thailand border, Kong Qi, managing director of China Communications Construction ECRL, told the Global Times that the ECRL will ultimately be a mainstay of the magnificent TAR.

“Now the railroad between Kunming and Vientiane has been launched successfully under the BRI. In the future, the line is expected to connect with Bangkok [via the China-Thailand Railway] and extend southbound further to the Malaysian border town of Kota Bharu,” Kong said.  

Under the TAR network design, three routes were planned: the central route, which starts from Kunming and extends to Singapore via Laos and Thailand; the western route across Myanmar and Thailand, and the eastern route going through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. All of the three routes connect in Thailand, from where the rail line continues to link up with Malaysia and Singapore.

Xu Liping, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that the opening of the China-Laos Railway has kick-started the TAR’s central route, while also “playing an exemplary role” in setting in motion more infrastructure plans in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. 

The TAR is dubbed as the “golden corridor” for resource-rich Southeast Asia, which has just moved out of the haze of COVID-19 and is undergoing a stage of economic transformation. 

Amid the slumping global economy, observers pointed out that the BRI is of critical importance for the economy of Southeast Asia, as it accommodates the region’s increasing trade among nations and with China, and accelerates the multifaceted integration ranging from goods, capital, technology and education to personnel. 

With increased connectivity and better infrastructure, the BRI has facilitated an expansion of commerce between China and ASEAN members. Both parties can import and export goods more readily, thereby promoting economic growth and creating new opportunities for regional businesses, Marzuki Alie, former speaker of the House of Representative of Republic of Indonesia, told the Global Times.

China has been the largest trading partner of ASEAN for 13 consecutive years, while ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in 2020. The two economies are also members of the RCEP, the world’s largest free trade agreement, which entered into force on the first day of 2022. 

In the case of Laos, crops such as watermelon and durian as well as rubber and timber have been making their way to China via the China-Laos railway, which is the first modern one in Laos. Exports of China-made solar panels and mechanical products to Laos have also skyrocketed.  

Kong noted that in terms of Malaysia, the ECRL passes across major economic powerhouses and industrial bases, as well as production areas of palm oil and minerals, which is conducive for commodity trade among Thailand, China and Malaysia to rise further.  
To date, the ECRL is the largest basic infrastructure project Chinese companies contracted abroad under the BRI.  Over 40 percent of the project has been completed, and the first phase of the rail section linking the border town of Kota Bharu with the capital is expected to go into operation in December 2026. 

By then, the travel time between Kota Bharu and Kuala Lumpur, with a designed passenger train speed of 160 kilometers an hour, will be shortened from seven to eight hours by road to within four hours. 

Echoing the BRI’s aim to promote balanced growth, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said in May that the ECRL project is a catalyst that can balance the economy of the less-developed East Coast with the economic heartland on the West Coast.  

A study conducted by Malaysian Industrial Development Finance Bhd estimated that in the construction phase alone, the ECRL project will drive up Malaysian economic growth by 2.7 percent, imports by 3.3 percent and local GDP by 1.5 percentage points.

With the TAR’s central route taking basic shape, Chinese investments under the BRI are tracking the train. 

During the Global Times’ visit to the “twin parks” in the Malaysian coastal city of Kuantan, another 10-year-old BRI project jointly set up by companies in China and Malaysia, steel and photovoltaic factories were humming. Those plants have been working with their parent companies in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region to erect a more resilient supply chain to better respond to global demand, representatives of Chinese companies said. 

It is expected the stronger railway connectivity will further fortify a stable supply chain between ASEAN members and the world’s second-largest economy, China, based on each other’s complementary advantages, Song Wei, a professor at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times. 

According to a World Bank report, if fully implemented, the BRI transport projects could increase trade between 2.8 percent and 9.7 percent with partner countries, elevate global trade between 1.7 percent and 6.2 percent, and increase global real income by 0.7 percent to 2.9 percent.

.  Graphic: GT

Graphic: GT

People-to-people bond

Northbound from Malaysia, the trip from Vientiane to Kunming by the China-Laos Railway is now a pleasant, comfortable 9-hour journey through jungles, forests, mountains, deep valleys and rivers, compared with a dangerous, bumpy 20-hour bus ride. 

Being the first leg of the TAR, the railway offers a vivid display of how the flourishing BRI project has released economic potential by transforming the only landlocked Southeast Asian country into a land-linked hub. The World Bank estimated that the railway could raise the Southeast Asian country’s aggregate income by up to 21 percent over the long term. 

The whistle of the train also brought a tourism boom. 

Laos’ northern province of Luang Prabang, a top tourist destination located some 220 kilometers north of Vientiane, has seen a record influx of tourists from other Southeast Asian countries and beyond this year, the Xinhua News Agency reported.  

“The opening of the China-Laos Railway is already demonstrating that increased connectivity is beneficial for trade and tourism between China, Laos and Thailand,” Narit Therdsteerasukdi, secretary general of the Thailand Board of Investment, told the Global Times, stressing that connectivity is an essential issue for Thailand.

The Global Times learned that since the China-Laos railroad opened, many Thai people opted to travel to Vientiane to take the train to China, for both business and leisure purposes. This experience has further drawn the eyes of Thai youngsters, who voice keen interest in a direct speedy rail ride from Bangkok to China. 

“I’m anticipating that one day, I could bring my family and travel to China through the China-Thailand High-speed Railway [HSR],” said Trin Phuanglamchiak, as he sits at a restaurant, looking at the sparkling view of the Mekong River at night. 

The river, known as the Lancang River in China, is dubbed as the “heart” of Southeast Asia. China sits at the river’s upstream, and the river runs through five Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The river system is the birthplace of the old saying “drinking water from the same river, unifying to a common destiny,” which mirrors the deep century-long friendship between the Chinese and people in Southeast Asia.

Trin joined the China-Thailand High-speed Railway (HSR) project two years ago and has been promoted to be the deputy chief engineer of the project. He is among the over 1,000 Thai locals who have been employed by the project during the construction process alone. 

Once built, the China-Thailand HSR will be the first standard-gauge HSR in Thailand, with a designed passenger speed of 250 kilometers per hour. 

The first phase of China-Thailand HSR, which connects the capital of Bangkok with Nakhon Ratchasima, will cut the travel time from more than four hours to over one hour, Zhong Jihou, CEO of China State Construction Engineering (Thailand) Co, told the Global Times. The second phase of the project, which runs from Nakhon Ratchasima to the border town of Nong Khai near Laos, will directly link up with China-Laos Railway. 

Certain sections of the HSR run in parallel with Thailand’s meter-gauge railway, a century-old rail system that travels at a speed between 50 kilometers and 60 kilometers an hour. 

A number of Thai people told the Global Times that they are reluctant to take the old railway, as the journey exhausts them because of the long hours and constant delays. 

“Travelling by car could even be much faster. But the China-built HSR could make a huge difference, and my friends and relatives have all been excitedly following its progress,” A-Titaya Pattanaweerakit told the Global Times. She now serves as a translator for the China-Thailand HSR, leveraging her studies in China. 

In addition to providing job opportunities, the Chinese company – like many other BRI projects – is also working with local colleges and institutes to help train railway-related talent and engineers, another boon for a region with a dense population and massive workforce. 

In the past decade, BRI projects have created 420,000 jobs for countries along the route, and lifted 40 million people out of poverty, official statistics showed. 

The development of the China-Thailand HSR has not only reshaped the careers and lives of A-Titaya and Trin, but more importantly it also epitomizes the growing desire of Thai people for more in-depth communication with Chinese people under the BRI framework.  

When talking about his experience on the BRI project, Trin became emotional. At the riverside of the Mekong River, he sang a very popular Chinese song “The Moon Represents My Heart,” expressing his gratitude for the rich knowledge he learned from Chinese peers.

Wirun Phichaiwongphakdee, director of the Thailand-China Research Center of the Belt and Road Initiative and Researcher, told the Global Times that the monumental development of the BRI in the past decade has “definitely” built a bridge between people in China and Southeast Asia, visibly in tourism, education and culture as well as a “learning Chinese” boom. 

Infrastructure connectivity and people-to-people amity are both embodiments of China’s vision to build a community of shared future for mankind with countries and regions along the BRI, which is the far-reaching goal of the initiative, analysts noted. 

A road to joint prosperity


According to the ASEAN Community 2025 vision, the community shall be one that engages and benefits the people, and is united, inclusive, and resilient by 2025. At the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May, leaders from ASEAN pledged efforts to enhance ASEAN centrality and economic integration in order to better cope with crises, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

“ASEAN’s 2025 vision is in line with the goal of the BRI. It is believed that anchoring the common goal, the construction of the TAR will speed up in the next decade, along with the advancement of BRI projects in Southeast Asia,” Xu said. 

Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke Siew Fook told the Global Times in a previous interview that he hopes China can play a more active role in facilitating exchanges between China and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia has been a pilot area and a demonstration zone for BRI implementation. 

There has been a lot of interest in reviving the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore high-speed rail line, Loke disclosed in April. The project was proposed in 2013, aiming to cover the 350-kilometer distance between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in under 90 minutes.

In Indonesia, the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway is now undergoing intensive joint commissioning and testing as planned, without much influence from the pandemic during the past three years, the Global Times learned. It is expected that the landmark BRI project, being Southeast Asia’s first HSR with a design speed of 350 kilometers an hour, will enter commercial operation later this year. 

In Cambodia, the BRI has been a catalyst for the country’s regional integration, under which highways, telecommunication satellites, airports and economic zones are being built.  

Those noteworthy developments have enabled industry insiders to paint a very promising picture on how the “game-changer” transportation map would be further laid out in the next decade. 

It is not only about the movement of goods, finance and people, as well as policy coordination between China and the Indo-China Peninsula, but an outreach to East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia and even the European continent that will grow in profusion – based on the sprawling inland and maritime transport network the BRI has sketched out, including the China-Europe freight train, observers noted.

Song said it means the region is better positioned to integrate with the global industrial chain, and the benefits to its economic rise will be multiplied. It would also reduce the development gap among different Southeast Asian countries and lead to more balanced growth.

“An important aspect of the synergy between BRI projects and ASEAN development path is fostering common and inclusive development. This is a resounding sign to developing countries amid a fragmented world and complex geopolitical landscape,” Xu said. 

For example, at a time when Southeast Asia is in urgent need of infrastructure development to fuel its economic transformation, Chinese companies have been using their industrial advantage to help under the BRI’s guiding principles, sowing the seeds of joint prosperity.

Investment in big infrastructure projects requires huge capital input and longer cycle. Returns on investment are also subject to uncertainty, which gives little incentive for Western countries to invest, some of whose investments are purely driven by a zero-sum game mindset and geopolitical purpose. 

Rail transit systems in the Southeast Asian region are projected to grow by 20 percent to extend to more than 1,350 kilometers by the end of 2024 from the level as of January 2023, showed a Nikkei analysis.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the China-proposed BRI offers a beacon of hope for vast developing countries, giving them a unique road to prosperity that is applicable to Asian economies,” Wirun said, while noting that in contrast, factors such as certain Western countries’ unilateral sanctions and non-traditional security threats have curtailed the development potential of ASEAN members.

To date, China and Southeast Asian countries reportedly have co-invested in more than 22 large-scale infrastructure projects. Those are also a divergence from the numerous schemes launched by the US, which set lofty goals yet translated little into action. 

The US in recent years has renewed its focus on Southeast Asia out of geopolitical calculations for a claimed regional “competition with China.” Washington has rolled out the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity to rival the BRI, while making pledges to build high-quality, high-standard infrastructure projects under its so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy.  

The startling decade of development of the BRI has also left the world to contemplate the global order, as the axis of a multipolar world order is endangered by certain Western countries’ relentless hegemonic moves, even at the cost of instigating divisions and conflicts.

The BRI in Southeast Asia is based on mutual respect, and is mutually beneficial and without any political strings, “which everyone can touch, feel and see,” Xu said. It at the same time invites every participating country’s discussion, rather than the Western way of only a small group of dominating powers deciding everything, all of which proves the mega initiative could serve as the bedrock of a new multi-polar world order, analysts said.

At the 10th anniversary of the BRI, a step closer to fulfilling the TAR dream will be a culminating moment to the joy and excitement of ASEAN people. 

Wirun stressed that in the next stage, the development of the BRI should open new avenues of cooperation, help build more consensus, and contribute collectively to global peace and stability. 

“It will eventually allow more countries to participate in the building of a community of shared future for mankind,” he stressed.


Source: Global Times, Aug 17, 2023. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202308/1296466.shtml

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