Despite elections last Sunday, Thailand remains riven by political conflict. On the one side is the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (and nominally her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in 2006). Their supporters dominate Thailand’s north and northeast. On the other side is the Democrat Party, whose adherents are largely drawn from Bangkok’s middle class, southern Thailand, and the royalist establishment. While many issues divide the two sides, the outcome of their struggle may have an impact on China’s reach in Southeast Asia.
Countries have long dreamed of a railway connecting China and Southeast Asia. A century ago, both the British and French governments hoped to link their Southeast Asian colonies with China. But ultimately terrain and war halted those ambitions. The Cold War poured further cold water on the idea, as revolutionary China seemed more intent on exporting communism than trade.
But a decade after China implemented its market reforms, things began to change. By the mid-1990s, the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation revived hopes for a railway between China and Singapore. But a lack of funding prevented its progress. Finally in 2011, the Asian Development Bank, working with the region’s countries, agreed to finance a circuitous railway that ran from China, down the length of Vietnam, across Cambodia, through Thailand, and finally down to Malaysia and Singapore. Railway construction costs were held down by the fact that the route knitted together several existing railway lines, though a substantial sum would be needed to upgrade existing rails and rolling stock.
But China has since upended the plan. It sought a more direct route to Southeast Asia. It had already built a railway from Kunming (in southern China) to its border with Laos. Then China’s railway minister pushed for $5 billion worth of Chinese financing to extend that railway to Vientiane, the Lao capital. The early 2013 downfall of that minister on corruption charges (and the elimination of his railway ministry) left some to wonder whether the proposed railway would proceed. But that uncertainty was lifted a few months later when Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the creation of a China-backed Asian infrastructure development bank, part of his new charm offensive in Southeast Asia. One of the infrastructure projects that he highlighted was the proposed railway. However, even if its financing looks more settled, the railway still faces the challenge of construction. While its route is more direct, it will require scores of bridges and tunnels to wend its way through Laos’ mountains. Meanwhile, at the other end of the hoped-for railway, China has expressed interest in the expected tender for the Malaysia-Singapore segment later of it in 2014.
Such a railway would have strategic value for China. Just as the transcontinental railways across the United States helped bind its eastern and western halves in the late 1800s, China’s north-south railway would help better integrate Southeast Asia—a mainly seaward-facing (and American-leaning) region—with its economy and political interests. In addition to being more direct, the route that China’s railway has chosen would tighten the connection between it and its ally Laos and entirely avoid Vietnam, a country with which China shares a long and quarrelsome history.
Whether the north-south railway from Kunming to Singapore is completed depends on Thailand, which sits in the middle of its projected path. Thailand’s current government has already discussed with China the possibility of building a connecting line between Vientiane and Bangkok, using concessionary Chinese loans. (Rather than replace the existing railway, a new high-speed one would be built next to it.) That connecting line would bring construction jobs to Thailand’s economically-lagging northeast. But there are those in the region who are concerned about the schemes of China and Laos, due to their unfettered hydroelectric dam development on the Mekong River and its tributaries (those dams could cause droughts or floods on their agricultural lands if they are poorly managed). Should the Democrats succeed in displacing the current government from power, one might expect that talks with China over the railway would continue, given that many of their Bangkok supporters also favored hydroelectric dam construction on the Mekong River. However, in the tit-for-tat nature of Thailand’s politics, grudges can be deeply held and if the proposed railway between Vientiane and Bangkok is too closely associated with the current government, the railway could become a casualty of the domestic politics between the two factions.
Just how concerned should observers be about a railway that ties Southeast Asia more closely to China? In the short run, they probably need not worry too much. After all, China financed and built a port and pipeline in Myanmar that linked its coast to China’s border, but Myanmar still sought to build stronger relationships with Japan and the United States. But over the long run, as economic interests in the infrastructure become entrenched and if they come to influence a country’s government, then national interests can shift. Thus, it would be wise for Japan and the United States to encourage the speedier construction of the Asian Development Bank’s railway route through Vietnam. That route would not only encourage stronger Cambodian bonds with Thailand and Vietnam, but also enable Cambodia to become less reliant on Chinese foreign direct investment for its economic growth.