World
China-Laos Railway ushers in new prospects for regional development
By Ji Jing  ·  2021-12-20  ·   Source: NO.51 DECEMBER 23, 2021
 
Workers celebrate progress made in construction of the China-Laos Railway on June 18, 2020, at the suburb of Vientiane, capital of Laos (XINHUA)

Laos, a landlocked country surrounded by five neighbors including China and Thailand, used to have only 3.5 km of railway. However, that situation has begun to change on December 3 with the opening of the China-Laos Railway, a 1,035-km line connecting Kunming in Yunnan Province of China with the Lao capital of Vientiane.

On that day, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Lao counterpart Thongloun Sisoulith jointly inaugurated the railway, a landmark project under the Belt and Road Initiative, a blueprint proposed by China in 2013 to mainly boost trade and infrastructure connectivity along the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road.

Xi, who is also General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met with Thongloun, General Secretary of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee and President of Laos, via video link.

The two leaders witnessed the opening of the railway, which runs through lush tropical mountains and across the Mekong River, shortening the journey from Kunming to Vientiane to about 10 hours. The line, with a top speed of 200 km per hour, has 50 stations. It is the first overseas railway project that is mainly invested in, constructed and operated by China and networked into China's domestic rail system since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative.

"With the opening of the railway, the high mountains are no longer high and the long journeys are no longer long from Kunming to Vientiane," Xi said at the opening ceremony.

He urged both sides to follow high standards in the maintenance and operation of the railway, saying the regions along the railway must be properly developed to ensure the line can benefit the people of both nations.

"It is a moment to be proud of. More importantly, the opening of the railway is of monumental significance to further the traditional friendship between the two parties, nations, and peoples and to comprehensive strategic cooperation," Thongloun said. 

Laos stands ready to conduct even closer high-level exchanges with China, step up strategic communication and maximize the economic benefits from the railway, he said.

  
A Chinese technician (right) provides training to his Lao colleague (middle) on how to carry out train inspections on September 12 (XINHUA)

Strenuous work 

Since the project began in December 2016, over 20,000 construction workers from China and Laos have contributed to the railway's construction.

The Boten-Vientiane section of the railway stretches from the Lao border city of Boten to Vientiane. As it is located on the Lao side of the border, most of the construction workers are Lao, with Chinese technicians providing training and assistance. 

One of the Chinese instructors is Chen Jie, a technician from CREGC Architectural and Construction Engineering Co. Ltd., which is headquartered in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Chen works with construction workers on methods for processing steel for railway construction. As they speak different languages, Chen demonstrated the processes many times to ensure the workers had mastered them. For the construction of the Boten-Vientiane Railway, Chen's company dispatched its best technicians to train their Lao counterparts. The company also established a training school that provided over 600 training sessions to help over 2,400 local people master railway building skills.

During construction of the railway, China created 110,000 jobs for Lao workers and purchased over 5.1 billion yuan ($802.7 million) worth of materials and supplies from Laos.

The area along the China-Laos Railway has been called a "geological museum" for its complex geological formations. The complex geological structure underneath the project exposed construction workers to a number of risks, and posed great difficulties for construction work.

For instance, in building the Yuanjiang Grand Bridge, the highest bridge along the railway, engineers had to overcome major technical obstacles. The bridge is located in the section between Yuxi City and Mohan port in Yunnan. The 832.2-meter bridge has four piers, the highest of which is 154 meters, the height of a 54-story building. Even when there is no train passing across the bridge, the bottom of the pier needs to support 150,000 tons of weight. However, engineers found that the underground structures under the pier were unable to bear the weight owing to the large number of fault lines underneath.

Three academicians from the Chinese Academy of Engineering were invited to collaborate with project employees on identifying solutions. A new solution was found that could reduce the weight of the piers by 30 percent while maintaining their weight-bearing capacity.

After the bridge was put into operation, a nearly three-hour drive along mountain roads was reduced to a crossing of slightly over 10 seconds. To achieve that 10-second crossing, Chinese technicians and construction workers worked for more than five years at temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius.

The China-Laos Railway has 301 bridges and 167 tunnels, amounting to 712 km and accounting for 76.5 percent of the total length of the railway.

While overcoming technical problems, much attention was given to environmental protection during the railway construction. The railway crosses 20 nature reserves and three national parks. "We have avoided core areas and buffer zones of nature reserves as well as environmentally sensitive areas to reduce the impact on the environment," said Xie Yi, chief engineer of the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co. Ltd.

 

A high-speed train departs from Vientiane Station on December 3 (XINHUA) 

Regional connectivity 

The China-Laos Railway is expected to bring benefits to both countries. The economy of Laos is largely based on agriculture and over 80 percent of its agricultural products are exported to China. However, high transportation costs over the past few years have made its agricultural products less competitive compared with its neighboring countries. The opening of the railway has reduced transportation costs between Vientiane and Kunming by 40 to 50 percent, making Lao products more competitive in the Chinese market. 

"The China-Laos Railway has improved the efficiency of resource relocation, so as to galvanize the Lao economy," said Bai Ming, Deputy Director of the Institute of International Market of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation.

The railway is expected to increase trade flow between China and Laos from 1.2 million tons in 2016 to 3.7 million tons by 2030, including 2 million tons to be shifted from maritime transport to the railway, according to the World Bank. The transit trade through Laos along the railway corridor could reach an estimated 3.9 million tons per year by 2030, which would include a shift of an estimated 1.5 million tons of trade from maritime transport to the railway.

Within China, the China-Laos Railway connects the regions of Kunming, Yuxi, Pu'er and Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, and the railway is expected to bring prosperity to these border areas, populated by multiple ethnic groups, including Han, Yi, Hani and Dai. Kong Zhijian, deputy head of the Chinese Academy of South and Southeast Asian Studies (Kunming) under the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said the railway will facilitate economic and cultural exchanges between ethnic groups in the region and inject impetus into the economy on China's southwest border.

"Since the railway will connect with railway networks in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, Chinese tourists are expected to begin traveling to Laos, Thailand and Malaysia by train. In the meantime, the railway will promote cooperation between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in trade, investment, services and finance, entailing more opportunities for Chinese enterprises," Kong added.

Moreover, the China-Laos Railway, a part of the Pan-Asian Railway Network, will not only benefit the two peoples, but also significantly improve regional connectivity. The Pan-Asian Railway Network, also known as the Kunming-Singapore Railway, is one of the most important Belt and Road transportation development projects.

There are three routes in the railway network, with the central route starting from Kunming, going through Laos and ending in Bangkok; the western route extending through Myanmar and Thailand; and the eastern route crossing Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand, before they all connect in Bangkok and extend southward through Malaysia and Singapore. 

Bai said with the opening of the China-Laos Railway, Laos will become a key hub in boosting connectivity in Southeast Asia. "The China-Laos Railway will connect with the Malaysia-Singapore Railway Network to the south through the China-Thailand Railway and connect with the China-Europe Freight Train Service to the north, enabling the landlocked country to be better connected."

"It will be of great significance for promoting the construction of the Pan-Asian Railway Network, enhance regional connectivity in Southeast Asia and boost regional economic integration between China and Southeast Asian nations," Bai added.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of China-Laos relations as well as the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN dialogue partnership. "The railway will enable China and its neighboring countries to become an even closer community with a shared future for humanity and set an example for building the Belt and Road," said Wang Yiwei, Vice President of the Academy of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era at Renmin University of China.

(Print Edition Title: A Land-Linked Future) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

Comments to jijing@bjreview.com 

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