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Between Ambition and Reality: China’s High-Speed Rail Diplomacy in Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe

Image Source: Gary Benjamin/Flickr

Delving into China’s high-speed rail initiatives in Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe highlights the challenges of the Beijing-backed mega projects abroad. 

In recent years, China has aimed to lead global infrastructure development through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), symbolizing its global ambitions. High-speed train projects within BRI have played a key role in this endeavor. While China developed impressive capabilities in laying out its domestic high-speed rail system in recent years, Beijing is now also utilizing these assets in its foreign policy in what has been called “high-speed rail diplomacy.” 

High-speed rail development, alongside ports and highways, has been integral to the BRI since its inception. Rather than introducing entirely new plans, the BRI absorbed pre-existing proposals for high-speed rail development, incorporating them into its framework. Thus, China proposed initiatives based on the existing proposals in Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia, embodying a vision for improved regional connectivity and economic collaboration, while simultaneously aiming to boost China’s influence.  

However, the realization of these high-speed rail projects has encountered substantial obstacles, leading to a discrepancy between initial ambitions and actual outcomes. Since the initiatives in Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia share many similarities, a comparative examination can tell us more about the BRI, its modus operandi, and its effectiveness when it comes to high-speed rail development. 

The Kunming-Singapore Rail Link and the BRI 

The Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL) stands as a pivotal part of the BRI in Southeast Asia, seeking to forge connections between the countries of continental Southeast Asia and China. Stretching from the city-state of Singapore to the metropolis of Kunming in southern China, the SKRL unfolds along three distinct routes.

The eastern route meanders from Kunming through Vietnam and Cambodia, converging toward Bangkok. Meanwhile, the central route charts from Kunming through Laos and Thailand, also converging on the Thai capital. The easternmost route traces a path from Kunming through Myanmar, ultimately linking up with Bangkok as well. From there, the route is meant to extend through southern Thailand and Malaysia to reach Singapore.

The concept of connecting Kunming to Singapore via rail is rooted in history, dating back over a century. Initially proposed by the British and French, the idea persisted through the infrastructure efforts of former colonial powers and newly independent states in the 20th century, albeit with limited success.

A renewed impetus for the project surfaced in the early 2000s when ASEAN and China jointly proposed the completion of the Kunming-Singapore railway. Subsequently, China embraced the project, integrating it within the framework of the BRI. The envisioned rail link is more than 6,600 kilometers long, requiring a substantial investment of at least $15 billion. In practice, the project consists of a multitude of national plans to construct new railway tracks or update existing ones. 

However, since the launch of the BRI in 2013, the progress of the SKRL has been marked by mixed results. Notable successes include the inauguration of the (partly) Chinese-financed projects in Indonesia and Laos, with the Laos-China Railway opening its tracks in 2021. In Indonesia, the Jakarta-Bandung Speed Rail project, which is not part of the initially proposed SKRL, but is heralded as an example of Chinese high-speed rail diplomacy, faced delays but finally opened in 2023, whereas construction of the China-Vietnam line commenced in mid-2023. China is already laying tracks at the border and Chinese companies are negotiating their involvement in the wider Vietnamese north-south high-speed rail project. 

On the flip side, challenges persist, notably in the delays encountered by the Bangkok-Nong Khai High-Speed Train in Thailand and the East Coast Rail Link in Malaysia. While Thailand had outright turned down Chinese financing offers to keep the project under national control, Malaysia’s government renegotiated the financing conditions with China years after the project inception for more favorable arrangement. 

The Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens Rail Link and the BRI

Moving to the other end of Eurasia, the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens railway is the most important BRI connectivity project in Europe. Its aim is to link the Greek port city of Piraeus with the Hungarian capital of Budapest. The proposed route winds its way through Hungary, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Greece. 

The origins of the idea for a railway linking Central and Southeast Europe through a Balkan route can be traced back to 2012 when the European Commission laid out initial concepts. However, it was not until 2014 that this vision gained significant momentum, becoming a flagship project under the China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEE) cooperation within the framework of the BRI.

Nevertheless, as in the case of Singapore-Kunming link, the railway should not be perceived as a singular infrastructure development project led by China. Rather, it encompasses a multitude of national or bilateral initiatives of varying scale. Some focus on the modernization of a few dozen kilometers of existing railway tracks, while others ambitiously aim to construct several hundred kilometers of new tracks. Furthermore, the financial landscape of these projects is fractured. China provides funding for some projects, but not all, with the European Union playing an even more crucial financial role in the background.

In Hungary, the upgrade of train tracks on the Budapest-Belgrade section, financed by China through loans from the state-owned Chinese Export Investment Bank is anticipated to conclude by 2025 after a 12-year construction period. Nevertheless, the pursuit of this objective has been cast into doubt as construction has come to a halt. The latest hurdle is the failure of Hungarian and Chinese companies to adhere to European standards potentially resulting in a significant additional delay. 

Regarding Serbia, the cooperation with China has strengthened since 2010, leading also to substantial investments in rail infrastructure. The current upgrades to the Serbian section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, managed and funded by Chinese and Russian entities, serve as an indication of this deepened partnership. Still, the European Union is also a significant participant in financing railway infrastructure development in Serbia, contributing €2.2 billion for the rail line between Belgrade and Niš.

In North Macedonia, the project is in its initial stages, marked by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2023 between North Macedonia and Serbia. China’s expressed interest in acquiring land along the proposed railway route signals an early stage of involvement.

Considering the status of the different sections of the envisioned link, especially those extending from Belgrade southwards, achieving the ultimate objective of linking the Chinese-owned port in Piraeus with Central Europe through a high-speed rail line appears to be a distant prospect.

Doubts may also arise regarding the classification of the connection as high-speed rail even if the current proposed projects are executed, as certain sections, such as those in Hungary, fail to meet the usual 200 km/h requirement typically associated with high-speed trains.

Delayed Progress Amid Unfolding Geopolitical Realities 

As the BRI reaches its tenth anniversary, a critical evaluation of its impact is in order. Amid widespread global discussions on the subject, recent assessments suggest that the geopolitical gains attributed to Beijing may have been exaggerated. The mixed score card of the high-speed rail projects in Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe are a good example of the challenges encountered by China.

A closer look at the ambitious plans betrays delayed progress, casting doubt on the Chinese narrative of contributing to regional connectivity. While certain segments, such as the Vientiane-Kunming line or the Budapest-Belgrade connection, have been completed or are underway comprehensive regional networks crucial for the transformation of connectivity and establishment of Chinese influence seem distant, if not unattainable. 

The primary obstacle lies in the complex web of divergent national interests among participating nations. Unlike in China, where projects can swiftly progress, BRI plans often encounter resistance abroad.

In the realm of high-speed rail diplomacy, Beijing faces the challenge of garnering interest from a diverse array of states to participate in Chinese-led connectivity projects. This difficulty may stem from extended planning and construction timelines in Europe or domestic policy challenges in Asia, which can impede engagement even in countries that have expressed interest. Moreover, China contends for influence in both regions against formidable entities such as the European Union and Japan.

This becomes apparent in the ongoing race to contribute to the prospective development of Vietnam’s north-south high-speed train connection. Although Chinese entities have already shown interest, in late 2023, the Japanese ambassador to Vietnam committed Japanese support through research and investment for the project.

Another notable example of Beijing’s struggles is Thailand, where the internationally isolated government installed after the 2014 coup led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha rejected Chinese financing offers for domestic policy reasons, denying China development rights to the land along the train tracks. This foreshadows what might happen in North Macedonia or elsewhere if Beijing pushes too much on this issue. 

A clear illustration of Beijing’s challenge in maintaining substantial influence over its partners can be observed in the diminishing sway it holds among nations participating in the China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) cooperation format. Although Hungary and Serbia stand out as examples of China enthusiasts, also being authoritarian outliers, overall trust in China has dwindled throughout the region. Given that all countries involved in the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens Rail Link are part of the China-CEE cooperation, this signals a challenging road ahead for further implementation. Increasingly, it seems that China can only push its projects through in countries more dependent on it.

The nature of this dependency, however, can vary significantly across multiple countries and regions. While Southeast Asia is more economically reliant on China compared to Southeast Europe, both regions maintain alternative partnerships with Japan and the EU, respectively. For instance, Laos serves as a prominent example of being under Beijing’s influence, sometimes even described as a vassal state.

In Europe, Hungary stands as a nation that may increasingly align with China in the future. Faced with sluggish economic development, rampant corruption, and democratic backsliding, Hungary could be compelled toward Beijing’s embrace due to regional isolation within the European Union. Nevertheless, even governments facing international isolation, such as the former Thai junta, have demonstrated resistance to China’s overtures. Consequently, the high-speed rail initiatives in both Southeast Europe and Southeast Asia have encountered only limited success.

Considering the overall complexity of connecting multiple countries through rail, it raises questions about whether these projects were inherently flawed from conception. Even in Western Europe, highly integrated countries face challenges with cross-border trains.

In conclusion, as Europe continues to distance itself from China and Southeast Asia experiences a growing great power rivalry between China and the US, the likelihood of completing railway links under Chinese guardianship diminishes. The formidable challenges posed by initiatives like the Global Gateway Initiative from the US and Europe, aiming to rival the BRI, further compound the uncertainties for Chinese high-speed rail diplomacy in the coming years. It is imperative for the West to take heed of China’s experience in attempting to develop cross-national high-speed train networks, serving as a reminder that similar endeavors may not necessarily yield the expected success.

Written by

Tim Hildebrandt


Tim Hildebrandt is a Ph.D. candidate in political science and economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen and a Research Associate at the Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences. His research focuses on the intersection of politics, economics, and geography.