China’s rail projects: A stratagem of statecraft

By: |
March 22, 2021 6:00 AM

The String of Pearls and the steel choker are nothing but the dragon’s coils around India: Be it road, railway or maritime links along and inside Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, China is busy developing extensive multi-modal connectivity all along India’s neighbourhood, viewed, not entirely without reason, as India’s containment

China-assisted railway projects in the region, like the Belt and Road Initiative in general, have been widely described as China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’China-assisted railway projects in the region, like the Belt and Road Initiative in general, have been widely described as China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’

Amidst the prolonged face-off between Indian and Chinese militaries on the country’s northern borders, China’s announcement on the side-lines of its parliamentary annual session about the construction of the $48-billion, 1,011-km new railway line to connect Chengdu (the capital of its Sichuan province) with Linzhi or Nyingchi (close to Tibet’s border with Arunachal Pradesh) is not without a strategic intent. Be it road, railway or maritime links along and inside Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, China is busy developing extensive multi-modal connectivity all along India’s neighbourhood, viewed, not entirely without reason, as India’s containment.

Realising the strategic significance of the railways as a lifeline of its economic and military might, transcontinental railway connectivity has been China’s unique stratagem of statecraft. At a pace and extent unknown in history, China has channelled very large investments in the expansion and revitalisation of its railways, including the new Eurasian Land Bridge akin to the fabled Silk Route through its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany.

All around India, China shares land borders with the five SAARC countries, looks over the Chicken’s Neck at a sixth, and has a long border with Myanmar. China’s formidable presence in terms of railway and road projects in India’s north is typified by the world’s highest 1,142-km Golmud-Lhasa railway line, opened in July 2006. A new 252-km line from Lhasa to Xigaze, Tibet’s second largest city, opened in 2014 is but a precursor to a 400-km extension not only to Nyalam, on the border with Nepal, and a probable further 120-km link to Kathmandu, but also to Dromo, close to Bhutan and Sikkim, and further on to Linzhi/Nyingchi on the doorsteps of Arunachal Pradesh.

Myanmar represents a vital missing link between the possible land-bridge connecting South Asia and South-West China, onwards to Europe. The 232-km Lashio-Muse/Ruili railway line that China builds would provide a strategic link through an extensive railway network across Myanmar. Beset with its Malacca dilemma, China has feverishly built a 1,100-km-long pipeline to tap the rich Shwe gas fields from the Kyaukpyu deep sea port on Myanmar’s Arakan coast to Kunming in Yunnan province. China’s development assistance to Bangladesh is likely to include construction of the second Padma Bridge and a 130-km railway line from Chittagong to Gundam on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

On India’s eastern flank, as Professor Wang Mengshu at the Beijing Jiaotong University explained, China keenly plans to rail-connect Kunming to Yangon in Myanmar through a 1,920-km-long railway line, while pursuing the ambitious SKRL (Singapore-Kunming Rail Line) running through Thailand and Laos to Singapore. The 414-km Vientiane-Boten railway line due commissioning in 2022 is estimated to cost $6 billion, almost one-third of Laos’s GDP! China is helping Thailand have a 250-km high-speed railway connecting Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, and extended to Nong Khai to link to Laos as part of the SKRL.

In the south, as part of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy of links with regional maritime nations, China financed nearly all of Sri Lanka’s big infrastructure projects—a new seaport at Hambantota, an oil storage facility, a new airport, a thermal power plant, an expressway, and a special economic zone at Mirigama near Colombo, besides rebuilding the main roads in the war-ravaged north and east.

On India’s western flank, China has planned strategic linkages to Pakistan, Iran and all across the Central Asia, incorporating the Gilgit-Baltistan tract in the PoK into its Xinjiang’s logistics grid for an unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf, expanding the Karakoram highway and planning a 900-km railway line from Gwadar port in Balochistan on Pakistan’s south-west coast close to the Straits of Hormuz to join the line along Koh-e-Taftan (on the Iranian border) to Spezand-Quetta-Chaman (on Afghanistan border) onwards through the Khunjerab Pass in the Karakoram to Kashgar in China, which is connected to Xigaze, already rail-linked to Lhasa.

China’s frenetic development of infrastructure in Central Asian Republics (CARs) signifies its long-term strategic and economic stakes in the region, aptly described by Chinese General Liu Yazhou as “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” Extensive railway infrastructure has revolutionised Eurasian transit regime, especially across Kazakhstan, and the 268-km link from Kashi in western China through southern Kyrgyzstan to Andizhan in Uzbekistan, not to talk of the eight new lines in Iran, including the 370-km Qazvin-Rasht-Astara line forming a north-south corridor to Azerbaijan and Russia. Today, China operates regular containerised freight trains to several European destinations via CARs, Iran and Turkey.

Chinese footprints extend to most of the ASEAN railway systems. Indonesia has the $5.5-billion 150-km ‘high-speed’ railway link being built between Jakarta and Bandung. The 257-km railway line from Bat Doeng near Phnom Penh to the border near Loc Ninh is proposed to meet the 128-km line to Ho Chi Minh City. China is already linked by the railways to Vietnam by the 195-km dual-gauge (1,435-mm/1,000-mm) line between Hanoi and Dong Dang. The $27-billion East Coast Rail Line project in Malaysia promoted during the Najib Razak regime, annulled by his successor Mahathir Mohamad, is being renegotiated.

Most of China-assisted railway projects in the region, like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in general, have been widely described as China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, binding developing countries to China through accumulated infrastructure-related debt. In no way can the high cost China-aided railway lines being built in Laos, Cambodia or Thailand be financially viable. Beijing pressured a debt-trapped Tajikistan to hand over 1,158 sq-km territory as it owed China $1.2-billion out of a total $2.9-billion debt. The ultimate takeover by China of Hambantota port complex in Sri Lanka is well known.

Like its trains clocking the world’s highest speeds, China has sprinted ahead in a bid to plant its footprints on developing countries and influence peoples. Pursuing President Xi Jinping’s ‘grand political-economic project’, the BRI, China has been dangling sweet terms with a fistful of dollars enticing countries where it desired to bulk up its presence and stimulate demand for its goods, capital and labour. Be it the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or myriad infrastructure projects in India’s neighbourhood, these provide China icing on the cake, serving as they do the PRC’s vaulting strategy to contain and intimidate India.

The author is senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, Delhi. Views are personal

Get live Stock Prices from BSE, NSE, US Market and latest NAV, portfolio of Mutual Funds, Check out latest IPO News, Best Performing IPOs, calculate your tax by Income Tax Calculator, know market’s Top Gainers, Top Losers & Best Equity Funds. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Financial Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel and stay updated with the latest Biz news and updates.

Next Stories
1As the antitrust movement against Big Tech gathers steam, it’s time to find solid solutions
2The silver lining on the Covid cloud
3Beating Covid-19: Scaling up India’s vaccination drive