BELT AND ROAD:Bangkok has so far only built 3.5km of its portion of a line linking Kunming and Singapore, but is today to agree to build a bridge to the Laotian capital
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s government said it is “making progress” with the much-delayed high-speed Thai-Chinese rail line that is to link Thailand, Laos and China, as the three countries prepared to ink another agreement this week at Beijing’s Belt and Road summit.
Formal talks on the project — a rail line expected to stretch 873km — began in 2014, but have been beset by delays, including disagreements over design, financing and technical assistance.
The Thai project is part of China’s plan for a network of links across Southeast Asia that would eventually connect Kunming, China, with Singapore.
Thailand in 2016 decided against Chinese financing for the project because of high interest rates and decided to fund the 170 billion baht (US$5.31 billion at the current exchange rate) Thai portion itself.
So far, only the first 3.5km of the line has been constructed in Thailand, but a Thai Ministry of Transport official on Tuesday said that the first section leading to Bangkok should be completed in two to three years.
The project is to be re-energized when Thailand, Laos and China sign a three-way memorandum of cooperation today at a Beijing conference to build a railway bridge connecting the Thai province of Nong Khai and the Laotian capital Vientianne, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
“The connecting bridge will make the project an example of seamless connectivity in the region,” East Asia Division Director Lada Phumas told reporters. “The project is going at its own pace. We must stress that the project is making progress according to our goals.”
The Belt and Road summit, which is to take place from today to Saturday, is to be attended by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his foreign and transport ministers.
The comments from Thailand come after Malaysia and China on April 12 agreed to resume construction of a 688km rail project.
The Thai-Chinese railway is divided into two sections: The first is a 250km line linking Bangkok and the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima.
That section is expected to be operational in two to three years, Thai Permanent Secretary of Transport Chaiwat Thongkamkoon said this week.
He could not provide a timeline for the completion of the full project.
The other part links Nakhon Ratchasima and the Thai border at Nongkhai Province, where the bridge — the subject of today’s agreement — is to connect the Thai rail with the Laotian network.
The construction of parts of the high-speed rail is done separately in each country.
Thailand said that it is not accepting financing from China, but using Chinese expertise, and buying equipment and rail technology from China.
“That is why this connection area [the bridge between Laos and Thailand] is important. It symbolizes that the Belt and Road Initiative through this southern corridor is really happening,” Chaiwat said.
Back-and-forth discussions between China and Thailand have caused delays, but negotiations on the highly technical train system — consisting of signaling, power and track-work — are now near completion, he said.
“The Chinese developed the rail initially for their domestic use and they have come far to export such technology, but it is still relatively new for them in transferring their technology to others,” Chaiwat said, adding that most of the documents, training courses and design were initially in Chinese.
“The negotiation is 90 percent completed and I think a deal can be tabled and signed by both sides in a month’s time,” Chaiwat said. “After that it’s all about construction.”