China's Railway Calls for High-Speed Diplomacy

Get from King's Cross to Beijing in two days on proposed high-speed rail link.

March 9, 2010, 6:20 AM

Mar. 9, 2010 -- From London to Beijing in two days flat: That's China's ambitious high-speed railway plan to connect Asia with Europe

China is negotiating to extend its own high-speed railway network to up to 17 countries in 10 to 15 years, eventually potentially connecting London with Beijing and then on to Singapore.

Wang Mengshu, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University who has been involved with every major Chinese express-line project, said the new systems would be using China's high-speed railway standard. The trains would be capable of running 215 miles an hour, almost as fast as some airplanes.

Most of the countries already at the negotiating table are in southeast and central Asia. And the talks involve a trade of resources for technology. Many of the countries are under-developed but mineral rich. Myanmar, for example, has agreed to offer its rich lithium reserves in exchange for financial backing on the project.

"Resources from those countries will stream into China to sustain development. I call it high-speed diplomacy," Wang told the South China Morning Post.

China is willing to offer significant financial support to countries already pumping natural gas into the country. Wang noted that Iran, Pakistan and India are in negotiations with China to build the high-speed networks.

China already has the world's fastest bullet train by average speed, which connects Guangzhou, the manufacturing hub of the south, with Wuhan, in the middle of China. It covers 664 miles in about three hours, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak's fastest train takes to go from New York to Boston.

President Obama warned earlier this year that the United States is lagging behind Asia and Europe in terms of building high-speed train networks. "Other countries aren't waiting," Obama said. "They want those jobs. China wants those jobs ... They are going after them hard, making the investments required."

Many Challenges to Overcome

Wang said China has proposed three high-speed railway projects, although the specific routing has yet to be decided. The first would potentially connect Kunming, China, with Singapore via Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. Another could start in Urumqi and go through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and possibly extend to Germany. The third would start in China's northeast and go north through Russia and then into Western Europe.

There are some technical challenges to overcome. While Vietnam has agreed to change its rail gauge standard to match China's, other countries are still negotiating. Kyrgyzstan, for one, runs on a narrower gauge than mainland China.

The key issue is money. China is already spending hundreds of billions of dollars on domestic railway expansion and is planning to fork out much more to go regional. Wang said he expects the new networks to raise money from host countries and the private sector but "[China] prefers the other countries to pay in natural resources rather than their own capital investment."

The successful completion of such a project would not only connect China with the rest of the continent and provide the world's largest country much-needed natural resources, but would help develop China's far west.

"We foresee that in the coming decades, hundreds of millions of people will migrate to the western regions, where land is empty and resources untapped," Wang told the South China Morning Post. "With the fast, convenient transport of high-speed trains, people will set up mines, factories and business centers in the west. They will trade with Central Asian and Eastern European countries."

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