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The Pan-Asian Dream

Jonathan E. Hillman—

In 1995, Mahathir revived a plan for a “pan-Asian” railway network. Versions of the idea have existed since the early 1900s, when British and French colonialists built some of the region’s first tracks and began drafting plans for more extensive networks. The concept resurfaced in an even more ambitious form in 1960, when a regional planning body at the United Nations proposed highway and railway networks connecting the region. The UN “trans-Asian” railway, if completed, would entail roughly 118,000 kilometers of railway, nearly enough to circle the Earth three times.

But Southeast Asia has been the gap in these sweeping proposals. As of 2017, ASEAN nations were responsible for nearly 40 percent of the trans-Asian railway’s missing links. When technical consultants for the UN studied the region’s infrastructure in the 1990s, they noted that narrow, one meter track gauge was often accompanied by light track, small trains, and slow speeds. That made the system poorly equipped for handling standard-sized containers and larger volumes of cargo. Although one-meter gauge is common throughout mainland Southeast Asia, China and Indonesia use different gauges, posing challenges for transshipments by land and sea.

Since Mahathir reenergized the plan, ASEAN has focused on creating three main routes stretching from Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, to Bangkok, Thailand. The eastern route would pass through Vietnam and Cambodia, the middle route through Laos, and the western route through Myanmar. At Bangkok, the routes are intended to converge and continue south, passing through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and terminating in Singapore. 

In addition to these three main routes, countries have proposed a dizzying number of supporting railways in the region. Indonesia alone has planned over thirty-two hundred kilometers of railway. James Clark, a freelance writer who runs a travel agency, has pieced together these proposals in a subway-style map that he updates each year. Reflecting the pan-Asian railway’s enduring appeal, these maps are entrancing and make the exotic familiar. Infrastructure takes center stage, and Southeast Asia looks as accessible as Manhattan. For an instant, it is easy to forget all that stands in the way. Build the railways, these images whisper, and integration will follow.

Of course, even if the entire network became whole overnight, a prospect that could cost $75 billion, differences in track gauges and procedures at borders would still constrain greater connectivity. “It’s a question for all the train investments because they just talk about building the lines and that is it,” explains Ruth Banomyong, head of the Transport Department at Bangkok’s Thammasat Business School. “They don’t talk about the actual modality of managing a system that is supposed to go across borders. You probably need a new agreement for international rail transport for the region.” 

Depictions of the pan-Asian railway can be deceptive in a second sense: they presume there is sufficient demand for these services to exist. Putting aside intrepid travelers and railway aficionados, most people traveling from Kunming to Singapore would still prefer to fly, which will remain cheaper and faster. Likewise, cargo shuttled between the two destinations would be cheaper if transported first to the coast and then by boat to Singapore. Most studies have found that a pan-Asian rail system would complement maritime shipping rather than compete with it.

The pan-Asian railway is more potent politically than commercially. It is something to strive toward, in bits and pieces, that will complement existing trade networks. It is something for politicians to invoke in the name of regional solidarity, integration, and development. As Mahathir explained during a visit to Kazakhstan in 1996, “In East Asia we are seriously studying a railway system linking Southeast Asia with China. It will be the logical step to link this system eventually with the railway system in Central Asia passing via and through Kazakhstan. This will give many land-bound Central Asian Nations access to the sea.”

During the same trip, Mahathir’s comments foreshadowed what would become China’s BRI: “Kazakhstan is indeed located in a strategic position in Euro-Asia between China, an important neighbour, which is in the process of becoming an important economic power and the Russian Federation in the north, and to the West the whole of the European Continent. Since trade involves transportation of peoples and goods, we see Kazakhstan providing an important road and rail link between East Asia, Russia and Europe.” Of course, seventeen years later, Xi would announce the BRI’s overland dimension during a visit to Kazakhstan. 

But even before the BRI was announced, Chinese officials were talking up their role in supporting the pan-Asian railway. In 2006, one official predicted that the eastern route would be complete in 2010. A year later, at the tenth ASEAN summit, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao cited the pan-Asian railway in his speech, and Chinese state media predicted completion of all three routes by 2015. Despite missing these deadlines, China has made the pan-Asian railway an even more central part of its regional engagement. From time to time, new officials rekindle the effort. The idea of a pan-Asian line remains powerful, diminished only for those who can recall the undelivered promises of earlier efforts. 

From The Emperor’s New Road by Jonathan E. Hillman. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Jonathan E. Hillman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is director of the Reconnecting Asia Project, one of the most extensive databases tracking China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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