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Belt and Road initiatives in other Asian countries

Belt and Road initiatives in other Asian countries
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Image: EEC-targetted industries – courtesy Royal Thai Embassy – Washington DC

Part 3 of 4

By Charles F. Moreira, Editor

Whilst Malaysia is in the process of reviewing or renegotiating the cost and terms of major Belt & Road related infrastructure projects such as the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), the Kuala Lumpur – Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) and in cutting back on the quantum of funds borrowed from China or China’s banks, our neighbours to our north – namely Thailand and Laos are enthusiastically embracing Belt & Road projects.

A landlocked country in South East Asia, tunnels and bridges are being constructed in Laos, which will be part of  high-speed rail link connecting Kunming in China’s Yunnan province with Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and if it proceeds, southwards through Malaysia to Singapore, thus enabling fast, domestic and cross border movement of people and goods and economic development along its route.

I former colony of France from 1893 to 1953, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic as Laos is officially known, was a poor and rather isolated country with little development, but once investments from China picked up, Chinese companies are pouring billions of dollars into Laos’ special economic zones, dams, mines and rubber plantations.

Also, highways have been built connecting its isolated capital Vientiane with its neighbours and investments from Thailand and Vietnam have also increased, and with the high-speed rail network passing through Vientiane, it is expected to bring more people, goods and investments into Laos.

Whilst China will no doubt gain significant influence in Laos and reap benefits from its infrastructure projects across the region, this railway will help to bridge the technological divide between the industrialised west and the underdeveloped world and help bring the same technologies employed by China in its manufacturing and high-tech industries to Laos and its neighbours as well, thus enabling competition and regional balance of power.

Thailand comes on board

According to an AFP report carried by Channel News Asia on 11 July 2017, Thailand’s government approved US$5.2 billion to the first section of a high-speed rail network which will ultimately connect Bangkok to Kunming in southern China.

This first, 250km section of the high-speed rail will connect Bangkok to the north eastern province of Nakhorn Ratchasima (a.k.a Korat) and is expected to take from three to five years to complete. It is planned to extend the line to Nong Khai on the border with Laos, where it ultimately link up with the high-speed rail network in Laos which will in turn provide the connection to Kunming.

It was hoped that the high-speed rail network would have been extended southwards from Bangkok to Malaysia and southwards to Singapore, thus creating a Trans-Asian high-speed rail network but this is currently in a limbo of sorts for now, perhaps until after Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed’s planned visit to China to discuss several issues, expectedly soon.

Meanwhile, as we had mentioned earlier in this article, work had already begun on the section of high-speed rail in Laos, whilst arguments over financing, loan terms and protective labour regulations in Thailand had delayed funding approval by Thailand’s cabinet until Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-O-Cha invoked his absolute powers in June 2017 to clear a series of legal and technical hurdles standing in the way of the deal.

Thailand will pay for the railway’s construction costs and own the network, whilst engineers from China will provide most of the technical expertise and China will provide the trains.

“Thailand will be responsible for the construction, while China will be responsible for (the) design”, said Thai Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.

However, some local Thai firms are said to have been unhappy with General Prayut’s decision to  relax restrictions placed upon foreign engineers.

This rail agreement is one of the biggest foreign investment projects in Thailand in years.

Thailand’s military government had drawn closer to China since the 2014 military coup, with Thailand spending billions to purchase Chinese arms and welcoming investment from China, especially when China’s rival, the United States, has become more isolationist under President Donald Trump.

Construction has begun

Construction work began on Thailand’s high-speed rail with a groundbreaking ceremony at the midpoint in Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima on 21 December 2017. This place is historically significant since it is the spot where Thailand’s first major railway line was completed in 1900.

Construction work had already begun with the sinking of piles to support the new high-speed tracks.

“On behalf of the Chinese government and myself, I would like to thank everyone who is collaborating on this project. It’s win-win for all of us,” said Wang Xiaotao, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

Legacy rail travel is very affordable in Thailand but little attention or development has been invested in Thailand’s rail network in those over 100 years, since Thailand’s focus has been on road and air travel.

As a result, the trains are old and drawn by diesel locomotives at a slow average speed of 50 km/h because of frequent derailments due to the ageing tracks.

The trains frequently stop at stations along the way, so train travel takes a long time, so is more suitable for sightseeing than getting anywhere quickly, such as for business.

Thailand’s government hopes that the high-speed train will attract travellers back to rail, drastically reduce journey times and allow passengers to travel in greater comfort and safety. The government also expects that the new train will make the northeast of Thailand more accessible to those who must work in Bangkok but want to have a home in the countryside.

“The Thai government is committed to infrastructure development to enhance regional connectivity and the facilitation of cross-border economic links,” said General Prayuth.

Connection to the Eastern Economic Corridor

Thailand’s Minister of Industry, Utama Suvanayana told Bloomberg on in June 2017 that Thailand planned to spend US$44 billion to add infrastructure and upgrade industry on its eastern seaboard and to link up its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as part of its efforts to encourage economic growth.

According to the website of the Thai Embassy in Washington DC, the provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi and Rayong have been designated for the development of the EEC, a pilot project for the economic development of Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard – or what is called “Thailand 4.0 in Action”.

Over the past 30 years, these three provinces had been developed to support the fast growing industries and this period is regarded as an era of Thailand’s industrial revolution.

In 1987, Map Ta Phut industrial estate was established and it was the beginning of the development of Thai heavy industry, such as petrochemical, auto and electronics industries. This phase is also called “Thailand 3.0” and today, Thailand is ready to move forward to the era of “Thailand 4.0”.

The EEC covers a 13,000 sq kilometre area and the Thai government has launched measures to support and accelerate the economic growth in the EEC, for instance, measures to develop public utilities, transportation systems, logistics, human resources, and facilities to support investors, such as One-Stop Service Centres.

Existing infrastructure in the EEC include a double-track railway, a motorway, two deep sea ports, three airports, seven industrial parks and 19 industrial estates.

Thailand aims to attract industries to the EEC, such as Bioeconomy – including functional food, bioplastics and cosmetics; automotive, automotive parts, electronics and robotics – including smart automobiles, electronic parts and robotics for industrial and lifestyle use; aviation, maintenance and related businesses – including aircraft parts and spare parts, maintenance, repair & overhaul (MRO) and air cargo; medical hub industries – including wellness centres, medical centres, medicines and medical devices.

Future plans are for the EEC to develop into a modern metropolitan area, a hub of trade and investment, a centre for regional transportation and logistics, a significant source for human resources, a tourist attraction and most importantly, the most modern Gateway to Asia.

Digital Belt & Road

Meanwhile, in a separate development, Opengovasia.com reported on 13 March 2018 that the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT) together with Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) had opened a new Digital Belt and Road International Centre of Excellence – Bangkok (DBAR ICoE-Bangkok) in Thailand as part of China’s Belt & Road initiative.

NRTC Secretary-General Sirirurg Songsivilai, signed a memorandum of understanding with Guo Huodong, Chairman of the DBAR program on 27 February 2018.

With this, DBAR ICoE-Bangkok joins seven other DBAR ICoE centres in Pakistan, Italy, Morocco, Zambia, Finland, and Russia and the United States.

The centre will use Earth observation (EO) and big Earth data from satellites and other sources to support decision-makers in the implementation of projects related to the Belt & Road Initiative and in managing risks associated with climate change.

DBAR ICoE-Bangkok will promote international cooperation and exchange of expertise and technology.

It will focus on cooperation in the areas of climate change, disaster risk reduction, environmental research, capacity building, among others.

The extensive geographical scope of the Belt & Road initiative calls for research and monitoring capacity that can address a vast array of development issues and support the design, development and implementation of diverse projects in these areas.

This information can be applied to research, decision making, project development and monitoring in seven primary areas: environmental protection, disaster risk reduction, water resources management, urban development, food security, coastal zone management and the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.

DBAR ICoE-Bangkok is supported by the NRCT, the Asian Institute of Technology, the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, and Ramkhamhaeng University.

The DBAR program was established in 2016 by Chinese scientists, in cooperation with experts from more than 20 countries and international organisations to promote global sharing of expertise, knowledge, technologies and data through EO and big Earth data from satellites and other sources.

Its aim is to address the discrepancy in the quality, volume and variety of data being generated by different countries in the region and in their EO infrastructure and EO data analysis capabilities. This would play a critical role in mitigating threats to fragile and shared ecosystems and countering other challenges arising from large scale development.

According to the DBAR Science Plan document, DBAR is committed to implement projects and actions relevant to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.

It also strives to integrate green, low-carbon and sustainable approaches to social and economic growth that are vital for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The DBAR Science Plan aims to link five levels of actions: 1) Link multiple data streams into an integrated, distributed data repository; 2) Design and development of an ICT infrastructure to support remote discovery, access, processing analysis of EO data in a virtual (cloud) environment; 3) Research on Earth System Science primarily based on EO data; 4) Interaction within communities of scientific; and 5) professional stakeholders Dissemination of SDG–relevant outcomes.

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