Walt Whitman described the locomotive as the "pulse of the continent." If his comparison holds true, then Thailand is about to get its first real bloodline to the rest of Asia. All thanks to China.
This December 19, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping, approving of a massive railway project spanning the width of Thailand.
South East Asia is criss-crossed with over five hundred thousand miles of highways. However, there are only a paltry 12,000 miles of railway lines connecting the region. There have been numerous projects to expand the network during the 21st century, but progress has been slow -- the length of rail has only increased by 10 percent, while highways have grown by 34 percent. The existing lines have their own set of problems. Thailand's tracks are rickety, poorly run, and ultimately behind the times.
China has now stepped in and finalized a new gargantuan effort to modernize the transportation system of Thailand. The project is two-fold. One line will stretch 456 miles from the northern border of the Nong Khai province to the shores of the Map Ta Phut port in the Rayong province, and the other will connect the center of Thailand with Bangkok.
The $10.6 billion dollar project is just a preliminary step in China's new outreach to the Greater Mekong Subregion. The plan is a part of China's desire to create a new "Silk Road," connecting all of South Asia, from Laos and Thailand, to even India and Pakistan.
Over the past decade, a new phrase has entered the Chinese diplomatic lexicon: "high-speed railway diplomacy" (高铁外交). China has mastered high-speed railway (HSR) technology at a frantic rate, and now is looking to use its nascent capacity to its advantage in the diplomatic sphere.
China has reached out throughout Asia, armed with billions of dollars in funds and the promise of economic rejuvenation through the brimming veins of China's HSR. The cash has followed freely, and the takers have been numerous. Close to $40 billion dollars worth of infrastructure deals have been hammered out in Central Asia alone, with many of the Eurasian nations questioning their loyalty to Russia with China knocking. Even Afghanistan has indicated willingness to be a part of this grand scheme, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani lending his support during his visit to China.
However, the new Silk Road isn't limited to just railways. China envisions the project as something much larger. Just one month after announcing the "Silk Road Economic Belt," Xi Jinping explained his desire for a "Maritime Silk Road" during a speech to the Indonesian Parliament. While the details of the initiative remain inchoate, some significant investments have already been made. Over $1.4 billion has been spent in Sri Lanka, developing a state-of-the-art port for Chinese ships. The Maldives and Bangladesh are up next, with China energetically increasing its presence in the Bay of Bengal.
With the old superpowers of the world, the United States and Russia, in periods of economic recession, it's easy to see why so many countries have bought into China's new future. The smaller economic partners like Maldives and many Eurasian nations are rearing to acquire Chinese assistance in developing much-need infrastructure. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei succinctly explained the motivations of many of China's new partners: "A place needs to have well-functioning roads before it can get rich."
For China, however, this "Silk Road 2.0" is not just a method for speedy transportation. It's a prime opportunity to expand Chinese influence, and open up China's diplomatic sphere. Relationships have been tense with many ASEAN nations thanks to numerous South China Sea disputes, but with the Silk Road initiative China seems to have found a solution that mollifies the typical belligerence. India has ordinarily dominated the Bay of Bengal, but with these new commerce opportunities Beijing has cracked this monopoly. China has metamorphosed in the eyes of much of Asia: from a looming threat, to a friendly patron.
But it's not just soft power where China stands to gain with the "Silk Road." On a purely trade level, China is positioning itself to capitalize on an entire continent. Want China Times estimates that the "Silk Road Economic Belt" will be worth an astonishing $21.1 trillion. At the same time, China hopes that their HSR will allow for fluid and simple currency exchange. China's state-owned Xinhua News Agency notes that the yuan is becoming more and more popular in nations like "Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Thailand." Perhaps we will see a future where all of Asia uses the renminbi and lex monetae is eroded.
"High-speed railway Diplomacy" is not the only popular neologism in Chinese diplomatic jargon -- "win-win" has become one of the most fashionable terms in diplomatic lingo. The Silk Road is being marketed as the world's first major "win-win."
The truth behind this blandishment is yet to be fully realized. While many world leaders are lining up to accept China's help, almost all of them are aware of the potential for this Chinese presence to smother local economies. Opening up fragile national economies to the production powerhouse that is China is a dangerous proposition. Nations like Kazakhstan felt major repercussions from increased economic cooperation with a sanction-weakened Russia; only the future can tell how the rest of Eurasia will fair with an open door into a economic giant.
In the case of Thailand, the questions are even more pressing. Over a million migrant workers flow through Thailand's borders every year, mainly from Burma and Cambodia. Bringing in Chinese labor, a precedent set with Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, would be completely unheard of in Thailand. Thai railway tracks are also of a different gauge than modern Chinese ones. The work will be extensive and arduous, but none of these issues of connectivity factor into both nation's plans.
Some also fear that China's ambitions range beyond simply economic. While the Chinese ports in Sri Lanka were sold to the people as purely mercantile in nature, the Sri Lankan government was unable to hide two visits in October and September by Chinese military submarines. While China has every right to protect its maritime investments, its continual presence will have a major impact on the balance of security in the Indian Ocean. This new found military relationship does cast a slight shadow on China's stately claims of economic cooperation.
However, China's "High-speed railway Diplomacy" may not be as successful as Chinese diplomats hope to believe. A deep undercurrent of distrust flows beneath many of China's new negotiations. In many Asian countries, while the governmental leaders shake hands with Chinese officials, the populous harbor misgivings about their new patrons.
In my travels to Asia, I've found that many are wary of the Chinese. In Burma, the people despise the Chinese businesses and feel that Chinese imports are suffocating the local economy. In Sri Lanka, my home country, there is significant ire surrounding Chinese military presence, and hopefully some of that indignation will become visible in the upcoming elections. A lot of it comes down to national pride -- no nation wants to feel like its become the vassal state of the local hegemony. In countries like Sri Lanka, where politicians have played on nationalism for decades, a strange equilibrium has developed where governments denounce the influence of the dominating West while accepting the money and resources of China.
The dominion of China in South Asia is not yet confirmed. While China will be handling the two new rail projects in Thailand, the Thai government is reaching out to Japan to help modernize the entirety of its railway system. In the Indian subcontinent, the belief is that some nations are courting China in order to spark a reaction from India, hopefully drawing more funding and diplomatic support than normal. It's no coincidence that during 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hastily reaching out to India's neighbors and building stronger regional connections.
It's difficult to say what the future holds for China's new "Silk Road." The embryonic plans for China's "Silk Road" have existed for years. It's only now that large parts of this initiative are being actualized. The dream is that China will help finance a new Asian economic revolution in nations that have lagged behind the boom of the Four Asian Tigers. The more pragmatic reality is that much of Asia is being slowly converted into China's backyard, all in the name of progress.
Lets hope that the "Silk Road" is something more than neo-colonial ambitions.