China pushes rail links into southeast Asia: Is Laos aboard?
China's ambitious rail project in Laos could bring prosperity, some say. But others in region doubt that’s high on Beijing’s agenda.
At first, the villagers saw only the upside: A new high-speed train was coming to Laos from China, its giant neighbor. It would put their corner of northern Laos on the map and bring investment to this poor, landlocked country.Skip to next paragraph
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Then the Laotian government officials showed up and explained that much of the village, relocated in 2005 to make way for a Chinese casino, would have to move again. In March, a team of Chinese engineers began surveying the lush valley and hillsides, which lie on the railroad's planned 261-mile route south to the capital, Vientiane, from the nearby border.
The plan to requisition a large tract of land was a shock, says village chief Kamthoeun Kaewvongphait. The railroad looked so sleek and narrow in computer simulations shown on television that villagers reckoned it could pass through their community without too much disruption. Now some 1,000 people face another imminent move, and nobody knows when it might be.
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While some villagers complain privately that they are getting a raw deal, Mr. Kamthoeun puts on a brave face. "We need to develop our country and make it modern. I think that it's good, and we can move our homes," he says.
If it goes ahead, the high-speed train would spell change for Laos, a rural backwater that has been bypassed by Asia's industrial boom. Its price tag of $7 billion is more than the country's annual economic output. China is expected to finance and build the railroad, which is designed to link to an upgraded rail network in Thailand and then to Singapore, boosting southwest China.
The ambitious project underscores the growing Chinese presence in Communist-ruled Laos, which has long depended on Western aid. Chinese firms are investing in tourism, agriculture, and mining, and Laotians are busy studying Chinese and learning how to do business with China.
In February, however, the railroad appeared to run into delays after China's powerful railways minister was fired for corruption, raising questions over political support for its completion by 2015. A planned groundbreaking ceremony in April was postponed, and a Laotian government official said that China's "ministerial reshuffle" was to blame but insisted that it would go ahead. Villagers in Boten said they'd not been told of any delays.
The announcement in December of a high-speed railroad through Laos came as a surprise to governments in the region that had been working on other ways to improve their transport links. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Laos belongs, has tried to boost rail connectivity with China and seek support from international donors, with limited success.