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Thai announcement puts rail network future in doubt

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A recent announcement by the new Thai prime minister has put a question mark over China's proposed trans-Asian high-speed rail network that would connect Kunming and Singapore.

In her first policy speech since being elected Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra told the Thai parliament that her administration aims to construct three high-speed rail lines connecting Bangkok with domestic destinations, according to a Reuters report.

Yingluck's announcement marks a substantial shift away from an agreement made by the previous administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The Abhisit government had agreed to borrow US$400 million from China to pay for materials for high-speed rail lines, in addition to agreeing to receive technical assistance from Chinese engineers.

The three high-speed rail links proposed by Yingluck include a 260-kilometer (162-mile) line that would connect Bangkok with Nakhon Ratchasima in Thailand's northeast plus a 700-kilometer line to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and a third line to the resort town of Hua Hin, 200 kilometers southwest of Bangkok.

Thailand Transport Ministry Permanent Secretary Supoj Sablorm told Reuters that the proposed links to Laos via new high-speed lines to Nong Khai province on the border with Laos and Padang Basar on the border with Malaysia would be "revisited at a later stage".

Supoj said Yingluck's administration did not consider extending the Nakhon Ratchasima line to Nong Khai urgent because China's plan to construct a high-speed line through Laos had been pushed back beyond 2014.

China has been promoting a rail network linking Kunming and Singapore through three trunk lines: an eastern line through Vietnam and Cambodia, a central line through Laos and Thailand and a western line through Myanmar.

In late 2010 Chinese officials proposed making the trans-Asian rail network a high-speed rail network, which would have major ramifications for regional trade and tourism.

China's substantial influence over the governments of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia should make progress on the rail network relatively simple in those countries. Thailand's importance to the network cannot be understated, as all three trunk lines would funnel down through southern Thailand before entering Malaysia en route to Singapore.

In addition to the diplomatic wrangling that might be necessary to get the new Thai government on board, China's position is now much weaker in the wake of last month's high-speed rail accident in Wenzhou that killed 40 people and hospitalized 192, according to government figures.

Add on the animosity between Thailand and Cambodia that has erupted into armed border conflict and China has its hands full if it truly wants to get its high-speed rail plans for Southeast Asia on track.

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