Last year, China laid out a plan to extend its high speed rail network all the way to Germany and London to the West and down to Singapore to the south by 2020. And naturally the Internet chorus called it politically untenable and economically unfeasible, a pie-in-the-sky project from an overly ambitious regime. China has a long way to go to prove those naysayers wrong, but the first steps are underway. China has hammered out a deal to extend its rail network into northern Laos, the first leg of a line that will–China hopes–ultimately terminate in Singapore.
The eventual plan is to extend the line through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Malaysia on its way to the bottom of the Malay Peninsula. To do so, China will have to negotiate with a host of different governments–some of whom are opposed to one another–in order to economically link Southeast Asia. And it seems China is starting with the path of least resistance.
Laos is one of Asia’s poorest nations, currently maintaining just two miles of railroad. Landlocked and without many natural resources to barter, Laos hopes the railway will increase tourism, revitalize the country’s gambling industry, and otherwise bring outside wealth across the border. Next to Thailand or Vietnam, which may want more control or other political concessions out of the deal, Laos is an easy stretch of track to build and could serve as a demonstration that China is making good on its vision of a connected continent.
As for China, if it can extend its track beyond Laos and into Thailand and/or Burma, it gets an extra layer of economic security via access to the Indian Ocean (and, via oil tanker, Middle Eastern crude) as well as to its Asian neighbors. From a more macro perspective, it’s the first step in integrating a geographic region known historically for sharp political disagreements among neighbors and isolationist regimes (Myanmar, for instance, and formerly Cambodia and China itself). And it’s a first step toward a true trans-Asian network that cold eventually reach west to Russia and beyond. Laos certainly isn’t London, but it’s a start.