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Understanding China’s railway diplomacy

By Jeremy Garlick - “Global Times” Published: 2017/9/26.

It has been recently reported that China's high-speed railway technology has reached new heights. The high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai has just got faster thanks to the introduction of the China Standardized EMU, otherwise known as the patented Fuxing class of trains. The maximum speed on this vital connection has been raised from 300 to 350 kilometers per hour, reducing the journey time to a little over four hours.

China's domestic high-speed rail lines continue to expand at an exponential pace. The network is already the world's biggest, with at least 22,000 kilometers of track already in place, and more being rapidly added. Despite some problems, as was only to be expected with such an enormous initiative, the Chinese high-speed rail project is efficient, safe, affordable, and popular with domestic passengers.

Railway construction by Chinese companies has also moved overseas in recent years, although up to now this has generally been of the conventional rather than high-speed variety. High-speed connections are hugely expensive, and so many countries, particularly those with low population densities, are reluctant to take a plunge into debt to fund them.

In Africa, China has completed conventional rail links in Angola, Algeria, Kenya and Sudan, and also between Djibouti and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Chinese rail companies are also working on railways in Guinea, Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, with some of these links being cross-border.

Outside Africa, however, the progress of overseas railway construction projects has not thus far been so rapid. There is a range of factors involved, with the wariness to allow Chinese companies into domestic and regional economies being the main one.

In Europe, for instance, the proposed Belgrade (Serbia) to Budapest (Hungary) link, which was to have been built by Chinese companies and potentially also extended through Skopje in Macedonia to Athens in Greece, was delayed by an EU decision to investigate the bidding process through which the tender was awarded. In essence, Brussels claimed that the award of the contract contravenes EU fair competition laws. This meant that a connection which would have enabled the relatively impoverished Balkan region to improve its integration with the rest of Europe was on hold due to European suspicions about Chinese motives and business practices. The construction of the project will start in November.

In Turkey, a high-speed connection between Ankara and Istanbul was built by Chinese rail companies. The project was completed in 2014. However, this is the only Chinese high-speed railway successfully completed outside China so far.

On the other hand, the project for a new high-speed link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is now open to bids and Chinese companies are involved. Only time will tell if this proves to be the stepping stone toward the rollout of Chinese high-speed rail technology across Asia.

In Indonesia, there is intense competition between China and Japan to win contracts to build new railways. Each has won one contract to connect the capital Jakarta with outlying cities, but neither project has yet been completed.

In India, Japan was recently awarded a contract to build the nation's first high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. This represents an escalation of what could unfortunately be termed Asia's high-speed rail wars.

The Indian government appears to see China as a threat, and is therefore unwilling to engage either with the 
Belt and Road initiative or with investment from Chinese companies. It therefore remains to be seen how India will react to the proposed link between Tibet and Nepal through the Himalayas, which is now in the planning stages. This connection could continue into India, but that would depend on the trust shown by Indians, which thus far seems to be lacking.

Yet, as researchers Dragan Pavlicevic and Agatha Kratz have pointed out in an article in the high-impact scientific journal Pacific Review, it is unnecessary to view China's overseas high-speed railway construction as a threat. China's high-speed rail diplomacy, they argue, in no way represents a security threat to the countries involved.

Instead, the extension of Chinese rail projects internationally should be viewed as an opportunity for all parties to enhance connectivity and trade. Indeed, as Pavlicevic and Kratz note, it is clear that Japanese companies have only become involved in building high-speed railways around Asia as a result of Chinese companies having the vision to put such projects on the agenda in the first place. This is despite the fact that Japan has had high-speed rail technology for far longer than China.

As high-speed rail becomes an accepted and desirable transportation technology worldwide, and an increasing number of nations decide to introduce high-speed links, the expertise and cost competitiveness of Chinese companies in the marketplace is going to give them an advantage, and is also likely to showcase the advantages of cooperating with China in this and other fields.

Ultimately, China's initiative in placing high-speed rail diplomacy at the heart of the Belt and Road initiative to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and East Africa is likely one day to be seen as a significant step forward in international transportation infrastructure, and not just for China's interests, but for those of the world.

The author is a lecturer in international relations with the Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies at the University of Economics in Prague.