IT IS disappointing to know that Thailand has negotiated a railway deal with China without a clear strategy and plan that addresses the national interest.
After a trip to China last month, Transport Minister Arkom Termpitayapaisit revealed that Thailand would dramatically change the rail system from a two-way standard gauge to one-way – in order to save construction costs. The portion linking Kaeng Koi-Ma Ta Phut would be put on hold due to low demand and lack of business viability.
If this is the case, the government should cancel the next round of meetings late this month in Beijing and spend the remaining time of this government in rethinking a real strategy and the national interest behind a rail system in this country.
The railway project in Thailand these days is mostly motivated by politics. The deal with China was initiated by the Abhisit Vejjajiva government. It was later modified by the Yingluck Shinawatra administration to craft a plan to improve infrastructure and logistics for Asean connectivity. Yingluck’s plan was killed by the Constitutional Court with the political aim of getting rid of her government.
However the military-installed government, which toppled Yingluck in the May 2014 coup, needed a showcase to illustrate that it could do things better. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government inked a memorandum of understanding with China in December 2014 during a visit to Bangkok by Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
The MoU was promoted as a successful cooperation between Thailand and China for a model of transportation infrastructure development in the Greater Mekong Sub-region and Asean.
For Prayut, the project was timely as his administration needed to show the international community the junta-run government had a friend indeed to help Thailand continue its development plan, despite the coup and consequent political pressure from Western countries.
In fact, a rail system in Thailand might serve Thai interests less than the Chinese plan to have a transportation network in Southeast Asia, which is its true backyard. Beijing dealt with Laos earlier to connect its rail links from the southern border province of Yunnan to Southeast Asia. A ground-breaking ceremony for the Laos-China rail project was held last December. The project in Thailand was linked along the line with the Laos project. If it succeeds as planned, the route from China to Laos and Thailand would be the first regional railway totally designed and built with Chinese technology, standards and equipment.
Strategically, it is perfect for Beijing to have a land link for its cargo and passengers to Southeast Asia should regional powerhouse, China, have territorial disputes in the South China Sea with some Asean members, notably Vietnam and the Philippines. Thailand’s Map Ta Phut on the Eastern seaboard is an alternative channel to the sea if the route through the South China Sea becomes hard to control.
Thailand, on the contrary, never asked itself whether it really needed such a rail network and what was its purpose. There is no doubt that the Thai rail network, built more than a century ago, badly needs to be upgraded to meet international standards among countries with the same level of development. Middle-income nations like Thailand, the second biggest economy in Southeast Asia, need a modern rail system.
However, judging from minister Arkom’s remarks, Thai governments since the beginning have had no clear vision about the economic viability of a rail system in this country.
“At present, Thailand has no mass goods in need of rail transit, as its mostly single-track (one-way) network has diverted traffic away from the railways for decades, ingraining a reliance on other types of transport,” according to a report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit.
Moreover, over the past two decades, train passenger numbers have halved, from 88 million per year in 1994 to 44 million in 2014, it said. This is in large part because the road network is in relatively good condition, it added. Trucks, buses and cars are a sufficient and effective means for land transportation. Besides, low cost airlines are changing the mode of travel for large numbers of Thai people these days.
And that poses the question: What is the point in having a modern and expensive rail system, except for the political motivation of pleasing China for other purposes, and the people in government?