China's High-Speed Rail Diplomacy

Having rapidly become one of the world's premier (and fastest) builders of high-speed rail, China is now looking to export its know-how around the world.

Section of Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed railway under construction.
Section of Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed railway under construction.
Wang Ling

BEIJING — As China's domestic high-speed railway network surpassed 10,000 kilometers (and this is not even counting the tracks still under construction), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, dubbed by some as the nation's "High Speed Rail Salesman," has just obtained yet another cooperation project with Britain during his recent three-day visit to the country.

China and Britain released a joint statement stating that the two countries "agree to promote substantive cooperation on rail, including high-speed rail in areas including design, engineering, construction, supply operation and maintenance."

Even though the British media remains skeptical about the safety level of Chinese high-speed railway, China has nonetheless taken another chunk of the British market.

According to the report released by the International Union of Railways, there are ten countries or regions in the world with high-speed rail operations and another ten that have begun planning to build such networks. By 2025, the number of kilometers of global high speed rail tracks is expected to double.

Experts in the industry see in China a country that has achieved from zero to more than 10,000 kilometers within four years, and is therefore particularly well-positioned in this expanding market.

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Inside a Chinese high-speed train — Photo: Wuyouyuan/GFDL

Undeniably, a sort of "high-speed rail diplomacy" has become an extra arm in the new Chinese government's foreign affairs. During several overseas trips, Premier Li has not forgotten to take each opportunity to promote China's high-speed rail technologies, thus earning his nickname as its salesman-in-chief.

On his official visit to Thailand last October, Li inaugurated a high-speed rail exhibition in Bangkok with that country's then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, promoting China's high-speed rail technologies as advanced, secure and reliable as well as cost-competitive. A memorandum of cooperation was then signed, though due to Thailand's recent political unrest the two countries' cooperation is yet to progress concretely.

In November, during the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) Forum, 16 CEE countries leaders were accompanied by Li for a visit of China’s "Railway, Other Infrastructure and Equipment Manufacturing" Exhibition at the Romanian Parliament Palace.

India takes different route

Li advertised Chinese high-speed rail's sophisticated expertise, rich building experiences and competitive advantages that will enable it to adapt to each country's national circumstances and meet the market demand. During the forum, China, Hungary and Serbia announced a partnership to build a track to connect Hungary and Serbia's capitals. A project of jointly building a rapid railway section for Romania was also announced.

Then in May, Li visited Africa, where he attended the World Economic Forum on Africa, the so-called "African Davos." While there, he announced that China and Africa will launch a high-speed rail technology research and development center. The two parties are to cooperate in railway planning, construction and operations to work toward the construction of a high-speed rail network connecting several of Africa's capital cities.

So how is Chinese high-speed rail selling in reality? Take the China South Locomotive, one of China's two biggest rail vehicles manufacturers, as an example: it is reported that up to now more than 50 countries have approached the company, of which more than 20 countries including the U.S., Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore and Romania have carried out in-depth cooperation talks with the firm.

In his government work report in March, Li also made it clear that China is to promote high technologies equipments such as high-speed rail abroad. It's obvious that in the future, China is planning to embark on the international diplomatic arena even more with its high-speed rail expertise.

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A diplomatic weapon? Photo: Goslar6403

Still, despite the accumulating momentum, Chinese high-speed rail is not yet popular everywhere, notably in Asia's largest democracy — India.

In March, the Indian press reported that for the country's first high-speed rail track India is not seeking China's help. Reports noted that this was not because of safety consideration.

Instead, according to the Indian Express newspaper, India has decided to opt for Japan's Shinkansen technology. Besides, Japan also offers a better high-speed rail funding scheme, that makes it easier to establish a joint venture with India to provide the financing necessary to build the entire rail system.

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