Developmental Railpolitics: The Political Economy of China's High-Speed Rail Projects in Thailand and Indonesia.

AuthorWu, Shang-Su

During the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, railways epitomized the triumph of scientific ingenuity in harnessing human capital, finance and technology to overcome the constraints of time and space. In any successful rail development plan, the shortened travel time ensures that the economy can make more efficient use of its resources, while population movements for employment and leisure can be accelerated. Similarly, railways remove space as a major barrier to industrial planning and development. If this is successfully carried out, physical geography becomes much less of a barrier to the establishment of industrial facilities. Between centres of population and skill concentration, railways facilitate the expansion of work opportunities and the easing of space constraints. For military organizations, railways enable what strategists term the concentration and dispersal of force within interior and exterior lines of operation. In short, for most countries, railways have played a transformative role in their social and economic development.

Our concept of "developmental railpolitics" captures these perspectives as an analytical framework for understanding China's high-speed rail (HSR) projects in Thailand and Indonesia. (1) China is asserting its realpolitik influence in Southeast Asia and other regions in an effort to achieve Great Power status. Railway projects that have the stated aim of developing China's Southeast Asian neighbours are also vehicles for advancing Beijing's economic and political interests in the region. In other words, China's stated mission of enhancing connectivity--especially President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which includes the construction of HSR projects--carries more than just development potential. Connectivity burnishes Beijing's long-term aspirations to become the paramount power in Asia. (2) Hence, "developmental railpolitics" advances China's Great Power ambitions without the visible, negative opprobrium attached to other issues of contest vis-a-vis rival powers and neighbours such as the militarization of the South China Sea, military modernization, border conflicts and trade disputes. Against this backdrop, this article goes deeper than the existing literature which merely assesses China's rail projects against Beijing's purported design to dominate Asian geopolitics. We build on the recent work of Dragan Pavlicevic and Agatha Kratz (3) by arguing that host states, such as Thailand and Indonesia, can exercise significant agency in negotiating the precise contours of proposed Chinese HSR projects.

This article has two aims: first, to examine the implications of planned Chinese HSR investments in Thailand and Indonesia; and second, to assess the levels of both countries' accommodation of China's developmental railpolitics. Before examining the country cases of Thailand and Indonesia, some historical context is in order to illuminate the antecedents for railpolitics in Southeast Asia.

Historical Antecedents for Developmental Railpolitics: Displacement and Imperialism

The idea of developmental railpolitics captures a rich series of precedents in Asia's encounters with modernization. This section sets out two aspects of it to contextualize what China's HSR projects in Thailand and Indonesia mean for diplomacy and intra-regional political economy.

Firstly, Asian countries' encounters with the introduction of a decidedly western technology of the railway triggered a bifurcated sense of displacement: while railway technology helped boost economic productivity, it also weakened pre-existing patrimonial practices. The displacement can be productive in a socio-economic sense as pointed out in this souvenir statement on the occasion of the opening of the Royal Siamese State Railway's Southern Line in 1917:

The Construction of the Southern Line, which considering the very sparsely populated country through which most of the line passes, was a very large undertaking for a comparatively small Country to embark upon[,] has been carried out for the purpose of developing the Country and of bringing the southern provinces into more direct communication with Bangkok, communication at present being only possible by coasting boat or by a long and tedious [two-month] journey overland ... By rail this journey will, when the fast trains are put on, last not more than two days. The opening of the line will also shorten the European mail service from 4 to 6 days, this time and in some cases more being saved by discharging the Siam mails at Penang and forwarding them by rail to Bangkok. Passengers alighting at Penang will avoid the long sea route via Singapore saving not only the actual time employed on the voyage, but the delay caused by waiting [for] a connecting boat at that place ... [F]or by alighting at Penang and crossing over to the Peninsula, they can travel by train through a very interesting and comparatively unknown country to Bangkok, see the sights of the City and if they wish to return by boat to Singapore to continue from there their journey to the East. (4) This passage clearly articulates Siam's grandiose visions of positioning itself as a hub of commerce, diplomacy and social traffic in Indochina. There is even an implied suggestion that the railways would enhance the political hegemony of the capital, Bangkok, and potentially enable it to compete with British-controlled Singapore as the region's economic hub.

Likewise, the colonial authorities in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) imagined the efficient reproduction of European modernity through the building of a railway for the benefit of both the Dutch settler population and natives. In the words of a Dutch colonial publication in 1882, railways and tramways were envisioned as "the most admirable victory of man over time and distance, the most powerful incentive to labour, exchange in values, and civilisation". (5) Primarily, the railway in the Dutch East Indies was intended to be a source of employment for the Dutch families resident there, but its ridership was much broader. The Dutch surveys of railway usage in 1904 and 1938 revealed that the greatest spike in ridership came from what was dubbed the third class--the natives who were classified as neither Dutch, other European, nor "top-level native" aristocrats, trained officialdom or Dutch-supported local rulers. In fact, the category of ridership dubbed the "little man", or "kleine man" in Dutch, manifested an incipient social and economic revolution brought about by the introduction of railways. Rudolf Mrazek described the social advent of railways as "an alarming vision of a breaking down of the ideal plan of empire through an invasion of physicality, crowding, and, most gravely, touching". (6)

At the same time, the displacement caused by the railways can equally upset pre-existing ingrained patrimonial practices. Elizabeth Koll's research on the construction of the Tianjin--Pukou Line in pre-1949 Shandong province in China illuminates the socio-economic upset directly generated by the introduction of western railway engineers and their associated new commercial entities into a thickly conservative local political context. Although the line was agreed upon as a four-nation enterprise--split among British, German, Japanese and Chinese business partners--the initial prospecting surveys on the ground were undertaken by foreigners. (7) The foreign engineers not only made notes for the construction of the railway but also scrutinized trackside terrain for the existence of iron ore, coal and oil deposits. The availability of labour from the trackside villages, along with information about pre-existing land ownership, and the suitability of sites for stations, were also targets of the survey. Although the foreign surveyors were instructed by the Chinese government to avoid interfering with "religious edifices, burial grounds or other objects which may be considered sacred", addressing the issue of land acquisition from their proper owners opened up possibilities for diverting the law for corrupt purposes. The foreign partners endeavoured to avoid dealing with local landowners by engaging local magistrates as "middlemen" to negotiate prices with the locals while they themselves officiated at the signing of formal papers concerning the handover of the land. (8)

Railway projects today trigger similar political consequences since governments also have to legislate to acquire land, clear settlements, conduct environmental impact studies and integrate plans for urban development. Along the railway line, new business possibilities can be created in tandem with the extension of the hand of government in introducing new spaces for private enterprise alongside new infrastructure. New companies can be tempted to enter the trackside industry and "sunrise" industries associated with the railway. Society may also witness the realignment of landowners and businesses related to pre-existing modes of transport vis-a-vis groups standing to benefit from railway development. This may mean intensifying political conflicts inside an affected state. Internationally, railway development may involve contractual relations between the host state and foreign parties, which sometimes generate commercial and political frictions during the construction and operation of the projects.

In this regard, we cannot ignore the possibility of "railway imperialism" as the second facet of developmental railpolitics. The term was coined by historian Ronald Robinson to refer to the consequences of building or renovating railways as an extension of assertive political control together with the development goals they are intended to fulfil. (9) Unlike the territorial imperialism of the nineteenth century, this indirect economic imperialism turns development projects into a vehicle for forcefully advancing political ambitions. Railway imperialism is a natural extension of...

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