Full Steam Ahead For China's Rail Links Abroad? China has ambitious plans for expanding high-speed rail systems throughout Southeast Asia and to Europe. And though Beijing is offering to foot much of the bill, negotiating the politics of building the rail links is tricky.
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Full Steam Ahead For China's Rail Links Abroad?

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Full Steam Ahead For China's Rail Links Abroad?

Full Steam Ahead For China's Rail Links Abroad?

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

China spent the last generation absorbing foreign investment and foreign technology. Now it's China's turn to send money and technology abroad.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

China's not just exporting cheap consumer goods. It's also exporting infrastructure to strategic locations.

INSKEEP: The Chinese are building high-speed rail links in Turkey, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. They've even expressed interest in bidding for projects in the U.S.

MONTAGNE: Not only that - the Chinese are building closer links with their neighbors. Someday rail travelers might roll across Asia from China to Singapore in a single day. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN: The plan is for trains to make their first stop outside China in the border town of Boten in northern Laos. The zone's vice governor, Vixay Homsombath, is already counting the renminbi, or Chinese currency, pouring into the local economy.

MONTAGNE: Of course, if the people come here, they should sleep in the hotel and eat here, and we can sell the food. And we can get the money from the hotel's rent and guest house rent or something like that.

KUHN: Houmpheng Souralay is a Lao official in charge of investment promotion. He says Lao laws requiring the use of local labor will have to be bent a bit for the new railway.

MONTAGNE: We need a lot of skilled labor, and the Lao local people might not have the ability to do that. So I heard that at the beginning there might be some need of about 40,000 skilled laborers to work on the construction sites.

KUHN: Laos is one of Asia's poorest countries. Its current railway system stretches for about two miles - just enough to get from the capital of Vientiane over the Mekong River and into Thailand. Houmpheng says the Chinese-built railway can help the country overcome its isolation.

MONTAGNE: Laos has a vision of, as you know, transforming the landlocked country of Laos to the land-linked country.

KUHN: Electricity to build and run the new railway will have to come both from China and from Vientiane. But it may eventually be supplied from hydropower dams on the nearby Namtha River.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

KUHN: But it's hard to find such debate or indications of public opinion in Laos or its state-run media. Farmer and ex-village chief Souvanpheng Vongxay will have to move to accommodate the new railway, but he says he trusts his government to help him.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Everyone's happy about this project, he says, reading from prepared notes with a government official standing next to him. We support the government because this railway can make transportation to other provinces more convenient.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE AND YELLING)

KUHN: Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says that since then, China's investments in Laos, such as mines, rubber plantations and hydropower dams, have helped China to catch up with Vietnam in Laos.

MONTAGNE: Vietnam still has the inside track politically. It's still got much more influence in Laos than China. But over time that will probably change as China's economic role becomes more dominant.

KUHN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Thailand's trade representative, Kiat Sittheeamorn, says China and Thailand are close to reaching a deal, and he's optimistic that China can connect the various segments of the railway.

MONTAGNE: China would do all they can in order to complete the line. They already spent so much money building the railway all the way from the south to Laos - they clinched the deal with Laos already - it would be just shameful not to be able to complete all the way to Singapore.

KUHN: Pierre Chartier is a Bangkok-based transport expert with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or ESCAP. He explains that plans for the trans-Asia railway lay dormant until the 1990s, when the Cold War ended and China's market reforms sped up.

MONTAGNE: All this suddenly created a huge boom in international trade. And then the countries in ESCAP decided that it was time to equip the region with a transport framework able to accommodate this new international trade.

KUHN: Xie Weida is a railway expert at Shanghai's Tongji University.

MONTAGNE: (Through translator) This is hard to say. I could perhaps talk about it from a technical standpoint, but in my opinion whether the railway is built or not depends on other factors. One is political, another is economic, and there might even be some military factors involved.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bangkok.

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