Thursday, November 4, 2010

China working on Silk Road 2.0

In the past few years, governments throughout Asia have worked together on the Silk Road project to create freight and passenger rail links between each other and Asia. A major links include a line Singapore through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam then up north into China and a line though Russia into the central Asian countries that used to be part of the USSR to Iran and Turkey.

It looks like China may be looking to support rail links that bypass a couple of its traditional enemies. It looks like Chinese money is available to support a high-speed rail link with Thailand and an ordinary speed rail link to Vientiane, Laos. Both of these lines would run through Myanmar. They are also supporting a high-speed rail link between India and Pakistan.

The project that is probably farthest along is the project in Laos. Questions have arisen about the nationality of the workers and the origin of the goods that will be transported by the railways. If most of the workers who build the tracks are Chinese, and most of the goods that are transported are Chinese, some people wonder if this railway will actually benefit Laos.Some of these may be genuine concerns and some may be simple xenophobia.

I have concerns because China is loaning the money to Laos. These are not grants. Many underdeveloped countries are in trouble because they went into debt for projects that did not bring economic development. This is especially a concern for Laos because very few Laotians have the skills necessary to work on a project like this. Right now the plans are to import large numbers of Chinese rather than educate locals for these jobs.

Who is going to operate these trains when they are finished? It is my understanding that the train that connects the border near Vientiane with Thailand is actually run by the Thailand's railways. Now this railway has apparently spurred enough development in the area to pay for its construction. People who used to be subsistence farmers are now able to sell excess crops and some crafts. But these are people who are geographically close to major urban centers. Some people are in fact carrying their goods into Thailand rather than taking the train. Is similar development possible in more isolated areas?

I hope so. I also hope that the government of Laos acts in the best interests of its citizens and demands that China pay for infrastructure for which they are the primary beneficiaries. Laos should also look for other funding for any railways they would like to build. There are other sources of revenue.

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