China's Silk Road revival plans hit rough patch

Land in Bandung earmarked for the high-speed railway linking the city to Jakarta. Work has barely started, and no tracks have been laid so far.
Land in Bandung earmarked for the high-speed railway linking the city to Jakarta. Work has barely started, and no tracks have been laid so far.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

'One Belt, One Road' schemes face problems such as resistance from locals, cost concerns

WALINI (Indonesia) • From a stalled Indonesian rail project to an insurgency-threatened economic corridor in Pakistan, China's push to revive Silk Road trade routes is running into problems that risk tarnishing the economic crown jewel of Mr Xi Jinping's presidency.

The "One Belt, One Road" initiative, unveiled by Mr Xi in 2013, envisages linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks.

Mr Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, has pushed the infrastructure drive that is central to his goal of extending Beijing's economic and geopolitical clout. The initiative was enshrined in the Communist Party's Constitution at a key congress last month, and some estimates say more than US$1 trillion (S$1.36 trillion) has been pledged to it, with projects proposed in some 65 countries.

But, on the ground, it has run into problems.

Projects traverse insurgency-hit areas, dictatorships and chaotic democracies, and face resistance from both corrupt politicians and local villagers.

"Building infrastructure across countries like these is very complicated," said Mr Murray Hiebert from Washington think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who has studied some of the projects in South-east Asia. "You've got land issues, you have to hammer out funding agreements, you have to hammer out technological issues."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, however, insisted the initiative was "moving forward smoothly".

Beijing won the contract to build Indonesia's first high-speed railway in September 2015, but more than two years later, work has barely started on the route from Jakarta to the city of Bandung.

  • AT A GLANCE: CHINA PROJECTS IN TROUBLE

  • Indonesia: Villagers have not moved out of land earmarked for Jakarta-to-Bandung high-speed rail

    Thailand: Financing and labour tussles in rail project

    Laos: Questions about whether costly railway plan will help country

    Kazakhstan: Free trade zone at China border seen as bringing more benefits for Chinese

    Kyrgyzstan: Country opposes China-to-Uzbekistan railway line that runs through it

    Pakistan: Pipelines, trains blown up; Chinese engineers attacked.

LITTLE HEADWAY

The first year after the ground-breaking ceremony, I did not see any progress at all.

MANDALA MUKTI VILLAGER NENG SRI, on Indonesia's first high-speed rail project.

A recent visit to Walini, where President Joko Widodo broke ground on the train line in January last year, found excavators flattening land but no track laid for the train, which is meant to start operating in 2019.

"The first year after the ground-breaking ceremony, I did not see any progress at all," food-stall owner Neng Sri, from nearby Mandala Mukti village, told Agence France-Presse.

The central problem has been persuading villagers to leave their land on the proposed route, which is often an issue in the chaotic, freewheeling democracy.

The Indonesian Transport Ministry declined to give an update on the project, and the consortium of Chinese and Indonesian companies building the line did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

On another planned high-speed line from southern China to Singapore, the Thai stretch of the railway was delayed by tussles over financing and protective labour regulations. It was only in July that the military government finally approved US$5.2 billion to start construction.

Work is under way on the 415km part of the line in Laos, a staunch ally of Beijing. But, even there, the project has stoked controversy due to its huge price tag - at US$5.8 billion, roughly half the country's 2015 gross domestic product - and the question of how much deeply poor Laos will gain from the project.

There have been concerns in many countries about how much they will benefit from One Belt, One Road initiatives.

Gains for China, such as access to key markets and tackling overcapacity in domestic industries, are often more obvious than those for their partners.

Said villager Sri, who lives next to the Indonesian rail project: "The high-speed train... is only for super-busy people who think time is money. We are not rushing to go anywhere."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'China's Silk Road revival plans hit rough patch'. Print Edition | Subscribe