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Rail link to Laos to help boost Chinese economic interest

OUDOMXAI (LAOS) — Like most of his 6.5 million countrymen, Mr Galong Vue has never seen or set foot on a train. However, the 53-year-old farmer knows all about the high-speed railway from China that will run through his village in north-west Laos.

China’s railway project will span several countries. Starting from Kunming, it will wind south through Laos and into Thailand. It will eventually end in Singapore (East Line).Other branches of the network will reach into Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

China’s railway project will span several countries. Starting from Kunming, it will wind south through Laos and into Thailand. It will eventually end in Singapore (East Line).Other branches of the network will reach into Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

OUDOMXAI (LAOS) — Like most of his 6.5 million countrymen, Mr Galong Vue has never seen or set foot on a train. However, the 53-year-old farmer knows all about the high-speed railway from China that will run through his village in north-west Laos.

“We first heard the rumour that the railway would come through here in 2010,” he said.

“Then the Chinese came to survey the land last year. They told me the railway will happen for sure and a train station will be built here.”

Some time this year, Mr Vue’s village will be gone, replaced by a state-of-the-art railway station capable of accommodating trains that cruise at 193 kph.

Beijing has long dreamed of a high-speed railway connecting it to South-east Asia, enabling Chinese goods to move south in greater quantities, while the natural resources of its neighbours travel north to China.

Now, the dream is set to become a reality — one that will draw the region even closer into China’s economic embrace.

Last year, the leaders of Laos, a one-party communist state, met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. They described the project as a priority and called for the formal agreement to build the railway to be signed soon.

Starting from Kunming in Yunnan province in south-west China, the railway will travel south through neighbouring Laos and then into Thailand.

Ultimately, it will extend all the way to Singapore, via Malaysia. Other branches of the network will reach into Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Constructing it will be a mammoth engineering task. It will require 154 bridges and 76 tunnels, as well as 31 train stations, just to connect the 418-km line from Boten on the Laos-China border to the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

An estimated 20,000 Chinese workers will be needed to build it, with the completion date set for 2019.

Landlocked Laos will be transformed by the railway. A largely agricultural nation where the average annual income is only £720 (S$1,500) and many people live without running water or electricity, Laos lacks both industry and infrastructure.

Currently, the country boasts only 3 km of functioning railway track.

However, Laos does have minerals such as potash and resources such as rubber that Beijing craves.

With China already the second-largest investor in Laos, after Vietnam, many locals fear the railway is further evidence of how their country is set to become an economic vassal of Beijing.

“Of course, Lao people are worried about the impact of the railway and the number of Chinese coming here, but the reality is that we can’t stop the Chinese. They are already everywhere,” said a teacher in Oudomxai.

Chinese residents now make up around 15 per cent of Oudomxai’s population of 30,000. Chinese-owned hotels, shops and restaurants line the roads and street signs are in both Laotian and Mandarin.

“You won’t find a single Chinese person in Oudomxai who doesn’t want the railway to happen. It will bring more Chinese people and more business for us,” said 27-year-old Ah Hai from Guangzhou in southern China, who moved to Oudomxai two months ago to run a gambling operation catering to Chinese punters.

Despite the vast economic disparity between Laos and its giant neighbour, it is Vientiane that will foot the bill for the rail link.

Using untapped minerals as collateral, Laos plans to borrow £4.5 billion (S$9.4 billion) from Beijing to pay for its section of the railway, which will instantly make the tiny country the world’s fourth most-indebted nation after Japan, Zimbabwe and Greece.

Many international financial bodies regard the loan as a disaster waiting to happen. The Asian Development Bank has described it simply as being unaffordable.

All that is holding up the railway is Thailand. Beijing is believed to be waiting for the Thai Parliament to approve a planned £41 billion infrastructure upgrade, which will include a high-speed rail line from the Laos border to the Thai capital Bangkok, before signing off on the loan.

Mr Vue and his fellow villagers, though, appear to be on the fast track to nowhere.

“The government hasn’t spoken to us about compensation. All we have is our land. If we lose it, we won’t be able to do anything.” THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

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