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High-Speed Railways, Thailand to Sign Pact with China

“Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environment-friendly and sound development, but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns,” said Yaqui Wang, HRW's China researcher.

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Thai officials gather near a model of a high-speed rail during the ground-breaking ceremony of the Bangkok-Nong Khai railway project, in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, Dec. 21, 2017. RFA

Thailand, China and Laos will sign a memorandum of cooperation on a new bridge for a railway across the Mekong River during Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s Beijing visit this week, a Thai foreign ministry official said Tuesday.

The bridge would link Thailand’s northeastern Nong Khai province with the Laotian capital Vientiane, Thai officials told BenarNews, in what analysts believe will reinforce China’s ambitions to build a high-speed railway network in Southeast Asia, stretching through Malaysia and feeding into Singapore.

Prayuth, who is scheduled to be in the Chinese capital on April 26-27, is expected to sign the trilateral pact on the sidelines of a conference of world leaders on China’s massive One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative, Busadee Santipitaks, spokeswoman for the ministry of foreign affairs, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

“Thailand, Laos PDR and China will sign a three-nation memorandum of cooperation to build a bridge for a high-speed railway at Thai-Lao border,” Busadee said.

Thai officials did not respond to BenarNews emails requesting more details on the memorandum.

China, which aims to increase its footprint in Southeast Asia through OBOR, has managed to push ahead with its strategy to build a trans-Asian railway network.

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The second phase linking Nakhon Ratchasima to Laos is awaiting approval, officials told BenarNews. Pixabay

Last month, Laotian officials announced that a 414-km (257-mile) high-speed railway linking Vientiane with Kunming city, capital of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, was almost half-complete and on track to be in service by December 2021. Construction for that project began four years ago.

Under China’s planned 3,000-km (1,875-mile) pan-Asian railway network, Chinese rail lines will extend farther south – all the way to the tip of the Malay Peninsula, linking Beijing to Singapore, one of Washington’s closest allies in the region and a strategic gateway to the Strait of Malacca.

China’s OBOR initiative has drawn criticism, including from Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who told reporters last month that the Philippines should be wary of Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy” that includes extending excessive credit with the alleged intention of extracting economic or political concessions from the debtor country.

Economists contend that the initiative forces emerging economies to take on unsustainable levels of debt to fund Beijing-backed projects, highlighting such concerns after a Chinese state-owned company took over the majority stake in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port after Colombo struggled to repay its loans from China.

Thailand officially kicked off its high-speed railway project in December 2017 when Prayuth and Chinese officials led a ground-breaking ceremony for a 3.5-km (2-mile) segment of the rail in the northeast province of Nakhon Ratchasima.

The junta-led government under Prayuth has approved a 179-billion baht (U.S. $5.8 billion) budget for the first phase of the 253-km (158-mile) railway linking Nakhon Ratchasima with Bangkok.

The second phase linking Nakhon Ratchasima to Laos is awaiting approval, officials told BenarNews.

OBOR, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policy, is an estimated U.S. $1 trillion-plus initiative that stretches across 70 countries. It aims to weave a network of railways, ports and bridges, linking China with Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.

Prayuth’s Beijing visit would include a roundtable meeting with leaders of 38 countries during which he is expected to express the commitment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to support China’s OBOR projects, Thai government spokesman Lt. Gen. Weerachon Sukhonthapatipak told BenarNews.

“First, we stress Thailand’s role as the ASEAN chair in supporting and committing to China’s attempt to link sub-regions and regions,” he said.

Prayuth, as current chairman of the 10-member ASEAN, will meet Xi and other Chinese officials, including Prime Minister Li Kequiang and Deputy Prime Minister Han Zheng to discuss ways to bolster bilateral relationship and economic cooperation, Weerachon said.

Prayuth will be accompanied by his deputy, Somkid Jatusripitak, the minister of transport and the minister of foreign affairs, he said.

China has ranked as Thailand’s largest trading partner since 2012, buying about U.S. $30 billion of Thai products last year, according to the Thai Ministry of Commerce.

Respect human rights, HRW tells Beijing

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China, which aims to increase its footprint in Southeast Asia through OBOR, has managed to push ahead with its strategy to build a trans-Asian railway network. Pixabay

Meanwhile, in a statement issued on Sunday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Beijing to ensure that the OBOR initiative would be respectful of the human rights of people living in areas near the infrastructure projects.

Under OBOR, Beijing should set out requirements to enable consultation with groups of people potentially affected by proposed projects, ensuring that affected communities can openly express their views without fear of reprisal, HRW said in a statement.

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“Beijing claims it is committed to working with other countries to foster environment-friendly and sound development, but the practice so far has raised some serious concerns,” said Yaqui Wang, HRW’s China researcher.

“Criticisms of some Belt and Road projects – such as lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and threats of environmental degradation – suggest a superficial commitment,” Wang said. (RFA)

Next Story

Amid Intensifying US China Trade Dispute, Indian Exporters Eye Gains

Orient Craft’s new unit in Jharkhand, one of India’s least developed states, will employ about eight thousand workers

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Orient Craft, one of India's largest apparel exporters, says it could benefit from increased business as the US-China trade war intensifies. This building in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi houses its office and one of its garment units. VOA

As work on establishing a massive garment-manufacturing unit by one of India’s leading apparel exporters enters the final stages, the company is optimistic about keeping the machines humming. Slated to begin production in August, Orient Craft’s new unit in Jharkhand, one of India’s least developed states, will employ about eight thousand workers.

Inquiries from buyers in the United States, its biggest market, have increased in recent months as a trade dispute with China intensifies, according to A.K. Jain, who heads the Commercial department at Orient Craft. That is why he is upbeat about generating new business. “This is an unbelievable blessing in disguise,” he says. “It will give us an edge.”

Exporters in India are reaping the benefits of the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies as business with both countries jumps, according to Ajai Sahai, who heads the Federation of Indian Export Organizations.

“While overall exports have gone up by nine percent, exports to the U.S. have gone up by 13 percent and to China by 32 percent,” he says. And as the confrontation escalated last week after the two countries failed to reach a deal, his optimism increased. “Since the tariff hike is now substantial from 10 to 25 percent we feel we will have more advantage in market access.”

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A slowdown in the Indian economy is being attributed to a drop in consumption by an affluent middle class. VOA

India is among a handful of countries set to benefit from the U.S.-China trade dispute, a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development stated in February. “The saying ‘it’s good to fish in troubled waters’ could apply to some bystander nations,” the report said, pointing out that most of the Chinese exports subject to U.S. tariffs will be captured by firms in third countries.

While China has opened its doors wider to a range of agricultural products from India such as rice and sugar, exports to the United States have increased in areas such as chemicals, pharmaceuticals, jewelry, auto components and apparel.

“In various products we were losing out to China with a very narrow margin. With the hike, we are able to offset that,” says Sahai. “That is why the tariff war has presented us an opportunity to enter markets in the U.S. in some areas we were hardly penetrating.”

But even as Indian exports benefit, trade experts warn that clouds are also gathering over New Delhi’s trade relationship with Washington. In recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump has slammed Indian duties on some U.S. goods, saying that India is not providing “equitable and reasonable access” to its markets.

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Economists also warn that an eventual slowdown in global trade due to the U.S.-China trade spat will hit all countries including India, which is already staring at an economic slowdown

Growth in the world’s fastest growing major economy flagged to 6.6 percent in the last quarter of 2018 – it’s lowest in more than a year. It is not expected to fare much better this year.

The slump is blamed on slackening domestic consumption, which powers the Indian economy. Unlike East Asian countries, which have raced ahead on the back of exports, growth momentum in India is largely based on an affluent middle class snapping up goods such as cars, refrigerators, air conditioners and other consumer goods.

But there are concerns as automobile sales, the barometer of consumption, plunged to the lowest in nearly eight years in recent months.

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Like other carmakers, the Hyundai showroom in Gurgaon has witnessed a decline in sales of cars in recent months. VOA

At the Hyundai car showroom in the upscale business hub of Gurgaon, near Delhi, a range of swanky models beckon customers, but there are few to be seen. This is in marked contrast to the last three years when buoyant automobile sales helped India overtake Germany to become the world’s fourth largest automobile market. That prompted car makers such as Hyundai, Honda and Toyota to expand their presence in the country.

“In recent years, March and April used to be good months. But now 20 to 30 percent drop is there in these months also,” says Gagan Arora, business head at the Hyundai showroom. “There is a slowdown in the whole industry. New buyers are not being added so frequently.”

Economists say while rising exports to the United States and China present a silver lining, the first challenge facing India’s new government due to take office after vote counting in elections is completed this week, will be how to restore overall momentum to the economy and see why consumers are not so willing to open their wallets. (VOA)