23 February 2019
High-speed rail has become China’s favorite foreign policy tool, but it has also fueled security concerns in other countries. Photo: Bloomberg
High-speed rail has become China’s favorite foreign policy tool, but it has also fueled security concerns in other countries. Photo: Bloomberg

What went wrong with China’s high-speed rail deal with Thailand?

High-speed rail has become China’s favorite foreign policy tool. Dubbed as the country’s chief salesman, Premier Li Keqiang never tires of pitching the technology whenever he visits other countries.

In his visit to Thailand last October, Li agreed to build a high-speed rail network for the country in exchange for its agricultural products. That was soon followed by similar deals with Nigeria, Kenya, Britain, Turkey and Myanmar.

Local media have called it the “Zheng He style of foreign policy”.

Zheng was a Chinese mariner of the 15th century who made seven voyages that took him to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.

Zheng presented silk, gold and other products to the people of the countries he visited, in exchange for which they provided him with their own treasures.

Centuries after, China is still trying to do the same thing. But, of course, trade is much more complicated nowadays.

Last week, Thailand suddenly announced the suspension of the “rice for high-speed rail” program, saying the two countries are looking for other ways to pursue the project.

Phaichit Viboontanasarn, a commercial minister at the Thai embassy in Beijing, said since there is a huge price difference between rice and high-speed rail, both parties agreed that the project should not be exclusively linked to rice.

Bangkok’s explanation doesn’t seem satisfactory. After all, when the deal was unveiled last year, both parties knew about the wide price variance between Thai rice and the rail technology.

A similar deal was struck with Romania last November, although Bucharest offered beef and cattle instead.

The truth is, the Southeast Asian nation is vascillating on the deal because of security concerns. 

This is not the first time that China’s high-speed rail policy has suffered a setback. China had planned to build a similar project that would pass through the mountains of northeastern Myanmar to the coastal plains along the Indian Ocean. The route would give China a shortcut to the Middle East and Europe.

However, the Myanmar government was not willing to cooperate.  It just allowed the memorandum of understanding on the project to lapse.

If the project will be resumed at a later date, both countries will have to sign another agreement. Myanmar, however, did not give any definite commitment in this regard.

Myanmar’s decision may reflect its fear of Chinese domination, just as Thailand is entertaining the same doubts.

China may need to slow things down and learn how to address its trading partners’ worries.

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EJ Insight writer

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