Audio: China’s High Speed Rail Construction in Southeast Asia: Myth vs. Reality
David M. Lampton gave a talk titled “Chinese Power and Rail Connectivity in Southeast Asia” before the Stanford China Program audience on February 6th. He addressed three issues in particular: the scope of his research project, conducted in partnership with two co-authors based in Singapore and Malaysia; the long genesis of this railroad construction idea from Southeast Asia to China; and, third, the overarching question of whether China can effectively implement the gargantuan feat – technologically, financially, and politically. The high-and conventional-speed rail project will span seven Southeast Asian countries, plus China, Lampton highlighted. This project is not only geographically forbidding, but the political terrain, and its socio-economic variety, is an even greater challenge. Lampton’s talk comprised part of Stanford China Program’s 2019 Colloquia Series, “A New Cold War?: Sharp Power, Strategic Competition, and the Future of U.S.-China Relations.”
Lampton began by clarifying that the vision of rail connectivity through Southeast Asia into China is not the brainchild of either China’s leadership or Xi Jinping. This idea has a long history, he stated, beginning with the British and the French in the 19th century when they were occupying Burma and Indochina, respectively; and even during World War II when Japan further entertained building railroads from the Korean Peninsula to Singapore to advance their military ambitions. In contemporary times, ASEAN had articulated a plan in 1995 to develop a rail line from Singapore to Kunming city, P.R.C. In 2010, ASEAN again put forth a master connectivity plan for 2025 where railroad development comprised a prominent part. Only in the aftermath of these many plans and proposals did Xi Jinping, in 2013, officially announce China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an infrastructure initiative with a scope far greater than simply Southeast Asia. The idea of infrastructural connectivity in the region, in other words, has a long history that predates China entering the picture as a major actor. Only recently has China amassed the technological capacity and financial wherewithal to realize this enormous project, with economic, diplomatic, and strategic military implications.
Next he described the key role that Beijing’s industrial policy has played in the rapid development of China’s high-speed rail. From a nonexistent industry in 2001, China has built a sector that is now an international powerhouse in high-speed rail technology. As of 2014, China boasted four trunk lines, North and South; and four trunk lines, East and West, crisscrossing the P.R.C. China’s industrial policy has clearly delivered striking results (as well as some setbacks) not only with respect to high-speed rail but also in other industries. In light of this, Lampton opined that China is not likely to yield to U.S. demands for major structural reforms in onoing trade talks with China.
Lampton described the progress in high-speed and conventional-speed rail construction with partners in Southeast Asia (ASEAN) that the Chinese have made, with Laos and Thailand furthest along in implementation. Nonetheless, Beijing also has met with significant resistance due to the complicated political situation in various regions. Lampton described, for example, the drawn-out financial negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia with respect to the rail line connecting Singapore to Kuala Lumpur; and the jockeying among various heads of Malaysia’s federation of local states. The election of Mr. Mahathir in 2018 also put an at least temporary halt to the construction and planning of two rail projects for many reasons, including the corruption of the preceding regime of Najib in Kuala Lumpur. Although Lampton expressed overall confidence that the rail lines will get built to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, for example, in the not-too-distant future, the political complexities of the region and China’s ability to successfully navigate them are still open questions.
He also described the competing world views regarding infrastructure construction and economic development. There are powerful constituents in China – now backed by Xi Jinping himself – who believe that infrastructure development drives growth: i.e., “if you want to get rich, build a road.” By contrast, the U.S. and entities such as the World Bank are more cautious, seeing all the negative social and environment extenalities such massive projects create. They also want to see greater assurances of projected returns from these infrastructure projects before devoting resources. Having said this, both multilateral financial and development institutions, and the United States Government, are gradually adopting a more supportive posture on large infrastructure projects, in part not wishing to abandon the commercial and strategic battlegrounds of the future to the PRC.
Lastly, Lampton debunked the notion that the BRI is a unified, top-down “plan.” Rather, he described it as Beijing’s “umbrella policy” that “creates a predisposition [among Chinese entities] to build infrastructure.” It incentivizes “entrepreneurial SOEs, provinces, localities, overseas Chinese . . . to push their pet projects . . . onto . . . the national largesse.” This being the case, Lampton described the BRI as a dynamic, chaotic and, sometimes, even a rapacious process for the transit countries. Yunnan Province, for example, started a rail line even before the central government had approved it; and Guangdong Province began developing its own special economic zone and port construction in Malacca all without central approval. As Lampton stated, the “BRI isn’t just about Xi Jinping and Beijing . . . . [I]t’s about local initative, and how Beijing can or cannot control or . . . under what circumstances, it chooses to control [its local actors].”
The recording and transcript are available below.