Laos and the New Silk Road: The Train to Dependence on China

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Outside the train on the way north along the Mekong River, the landscape streams past. Green valleys with rice fields, the sides of the hills covered in jungle. Fishponds can be seen every so often, along with muddy brown fields and the occasional house. The hills to the right and left of the rail line get bigger and bigger. And then, after about an hour, the long series of tunnels starts – with almost half of the line to the border running beneath the mountains.

For China, the high-speed train through Laos is a further decisive step toward the completion of its Belt and Road Initiative, the vast development program launched in 2013 with the aim of substantially expanding Beijing’s influence. The initiative opens up markets, trade corridors and access to resources in Africa, Central Asia and Europe. China’s influence in Southeast Asia, especially in Laos, is particularly large.

For Laos, the “New Silk Road,” as the investment initiative is frequently called, means the opportunity to enjoy a state-of-the-art rail line of the kind the country never could have built and operated on its own. Other countries, like Japan, Vietnam and Thailand, also invest in Laos, of course, but China is by far the country’s largest lender. Chinese money is financing the construction of hydroelectric plants and dams on the Mekong, agricultural projects, mining operations and caoutchouc production. The rail line, Laos’ most expensive infrastructure project ever, was built by the Laos-China Railway Company, a joint venture largely owned by Chinese investors. The plans, the equipment, the workers, the material – almost all of it came from China.

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