Thailand approves long-delayed US$5.2b rail link to China

Thailand will cover the construction costs but the majority of technical expertise will come from Chinese engineers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 8:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 12:02am

Thailand on Tuesday approved US$5.2 billion for the construction of the first stretch of a long-delayed high-speed railway that will ultimately connect to China, part of its belt and road ­infrastructure plan.

Although China was only providing technology for the project, the progress gave Beijing a boost at a time when its blueprint for a network of high-speed rail links throughout Southeast Asia faced hurdles, experts said.

The grand plan would see trains travelling south from Kunming in Yunnan province through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore. Construction in Laos began late last year.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Thai section was held in 2015, with the deputy prime ministers from both China and Thailand attending.

But the project has been held up by disputes over financing, loan terms and labour protection regulations.

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“The cabinet has approved phase one of the high speed railway ... from Bangkok to Korat with 179 billion baht [HK$41 billion] budget for a four-year plan,” ­Kobsak Pootrakool, a vice-minister from the prime minister’s ­office, told reporters.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the Thai military government, made use of an executive order last month to clear the way for the project. Thailand would cover the construction costs, the government said.

The first phase of the project is 250km, less than a third of the planned 850km track within Thailand and remains far from the ­extension to Nong Khai on the border with Laos.

Chinese experts heralded the decision by the Thai cabinet as significant progress.

“The Chinese railway could actually be used by the Thais and be displayed to other Southeast Asian countries, which is the most important thing,” Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

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“The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is supposed to be open to all and take into consideration all parties’ interests. China should be ­patient.”

Xu said Beijing’s push for high-speed rail projects was not very popular among the Thai media and some parts of the public despite interest shown by the previous government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thailand has also agreed to build a 700km high-speed rail connection between Bangkok and Chiang Mai using Japanese technology.

China lost the bid to Japan in 2016, and construction is scheduled to begin next year.

Thai Transport Minister ­Arkhom Termpittayapaisith has said local firms would be responsible for construction, while China would handle the design, technology, signalling systems and technical training.

“The project will use Thai ­materials but Chinese technology will be used in the construction,” Prayuth said. “We will send ­people to learn this so that we can operate the rail system ourselves in the future.”

Xu said there would likely be further challenges for the project, including legal issues over work permits for Chinese engineers and technical difficulties in training local workers

He also pointed to possible political uncertainty should the military government step down and decide to hold an election next year.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse