The great imperialists of the 19th Century built railroads to solidify their control of vast expanses of land and incorporate their territory into modern industrial economies. And although the construction of railroads may seem archaic today, the government of China has demonstrated the relevance of high speed rail in both internal state building and external diplomacy.
China vast high-speed rail projects including a new line, which “will incorporate into the network three provinces covering about 30% of China’s land area.” The new line connects Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang (China’s western most province and home to its Uighurs) with Lanzhou, capital of Gansu. There is little economic activity between these cities and the rugged land between them is mostly empty.
The Xinjiang-Lanzhou line is symbolic and political. Xinjiang has seen the most political unrest of any part of China in the recent past. The construction of a major rail line underlines Chinese control of the territory and incorporates it further into the heartland. Moreover, the new line has led to a boom in development at stations along it, attracting ever more ethnic Han Chinese from the coastland and diminishing the Uighur majority there. Secondly, Xinjiang is rich in natural resources (especially coal) and a key transit corridor to Central Asia—from which China seeks to secure its future energy supply, along with other key natural resources.
Kunming becoming the Capital of mainland Southeast Asia
Premier Li Keqiang is promoting a high-speed railway system that would link China, Thailand and Singapore, that would make Singapore-Kunming a 12-hour journey. Other lines would connect the China Kunming hub to Vietnam.
Connectivity between mainland Southeast Asia and southern China is growing much faster than intra-ASEAN connectivity, and the strategic geography of East Asia is thereby being changed forever. Driven by the high-speed rail networks, new roads and telecommunication facilities centring on Kunming, together with China’s burgeoning economic engagement—both trade and investment—with the Greater Mekong area, mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore) is in the process of disconnecting from maritime Southeast Asia. This will, almost inevitably, result in ASEAN dividing along this fault line. And when the people of the mainland countries soon find, through the convenience of HSR, that Kunming is their ‘closest neighbor’ but a few hours away, the Yunnan capital will gradually emerge as the hub of the Greater Mekong Region and will eventually become, in effect, the capital of mainland Southeast Asia.
In his book The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan writes, “China has a vision of Afghanistan (and of Pakistan) as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from Indian Ocean ports, linking up with Beijing’s budding Central Asian dominion-of-sorts.” The construction of a high-speed railroad will free up existing line to be used exclusively for freight. Thus, this new high speed line—along with the conventional Qinghai-Tibet Railway (perhaps the great engineering feat of this century so far)—physically, politically, and economically links the periphery to the center.
Military deployments are ephemeral: roads, rail links, and pipelines can be virtually forever.”