China announced the plan on a proposed high speed railway network in 2010 that would pass through Central Asia, most of the mainland ASEAN countries, India and Pakistan from South Asia and then move into Europe. The first leg, which is the Kunming line (see map) is estimated to be completed first by 2015. The question stands as to what is the strategic importance of the proposed rail networks and how does it help China fulfill its energy needs?
China has proposed 3 transcontinental rail routes that will go through at least 17 countries. If the proposed plan goes through then it would be a major breakthrough in transcontinental trade. The routes have been developed mainly to connect the major energy suppliers to China, among other things.
The first line is proposed to connect Kunming in Southern China to Singapore. The line would run through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. A second link originating from Kunming would head into Myanmar, India and Pakistan, finally joining the line which originates in Xinjiang (China) at Tehran (Iran). The Asia Development Bank had loaned £27 million as part of the £93 million for the reconstruction of Cambodia’s line. According to the Chinese authorities, the lines would not be solely dependent on government money and bank loans, the railways can also raise capital from the private sector of the countries concerned.
The second line of the transcontinental high speed rail network would originate from the north western fringes of China, Urumqi in Xinjiang precisely, and move towards Central Asia linking China’s neighbours, and then into Tehran before heading ambitiously to London. This line connects China’s outlying provinces to the Central Asian markets and strengthens the existing trade routes.
The last line would go north through the Russian gas preserves and Eastern Europe into Germany. All the three major lines are interconnected with each other as can be seen in the map given.
Currently China is one of the largest consumers of oil and natural gas in the world. With these resources becoming scarcer and their prices increasingly volatile due to market fluctuations, China needs to look at alternative sources for energy. The transcontinental rail plan would not only give China access to the major energy preserves and other resources but also strengthen China as a dominant player in Asia. Moreover, it would eliminate chances of Europe or American influence in Asia.
However a 17 country high speed railway network is overly ambitious, even for China. The routes and detailed plans have not been confirmed by the official Chinese media nor has the main purpose of the network, whether it is for passengers or freight. Besides this, different track gauges and visa requirements stand as obstacles other than the bureaucratic red-tapism which is a big problem in Asia. In many countries the previously existing tracks would be used for the high speed railway project however these tracks are in dire need of renovation too.
In spite of this the opening up of Central Asia to East and South Asia would help in a more efficient transport of raw material cargoes. With regard to the financing of the rail networks Wang Mengshu, senior consultant of the project, says that China prefers to finance the rail networks in exchange for the resources that it currently lacks. This can be seen in the case of Myanmar where the country’s lithium is being exchanged for the development of a high speed rail line by the Chinese.
The Central Asia-China gas pipeline inaugurated in 2009 from Central Asia into Xinjiang, China, coupled with the rail network that further connects Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to China would integrate the energy supplying countries to the energy-keen China. At present Kazakhstan is eleventh in the world in terms of its crude oil reserves and it has a geographically strategic position in Central Asia from where it controls the oil flow from Central Asia to East Asia and Russia. Also, the countries that will be part of the proposed network would be able to partake in China’s economic growth; opportunities for regional cooperation especially in terms of trade would be enhanced.
China has invested heavily in the building of highways, sea ports and airports and oil and gas pipelines in many countries, including Myanmar and Pakistan. This including the trans-continental high speed rail network opens up a world of opportunities for China. First, it provides alternative energy supply routes which are secured through China’s own infrastructure. Second, it gives new trade routes and lastly, it gives China’s outlying provinces an opportunity to be integrated into China’s extensive trading network.
Presently only the Kunming line seems conceivable; in fact the line in Cambodia is expected to finish by 2013. Nevertheless, a country like Russia might hinder the project because this expansive network would give China unprecedented access to the natural resources and strengthen its position in Asia. In spite of this, China’s resource scarcity points to the reality that China will leave no stone unturned towards the materialization of the project. The proposed rail network is geo-strategically very important for China and is likely to be a game-changer in the geo-politics of Asia.