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All Roads (and Railways) Leading to China… And the West Ain’t Happy

China’s ascendant global power is showing up the increasingly bankrupt condition of the United States and its Western allies.

China is succeeding where the British, French and Japanese imperialist powers failed. This year saw the full operation of the China-Laos Railway, the first link in an ambitious Pan-Asian Rail Network that will integrate eight Southeast Asian nations designed to carry freight and millions of passengers.

The city of Kunming in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan is the rail and road hub linking the world’s second-biggest economy to its southern neighbors. The Pan-Asian Rail Network covers Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, converging on the port cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (see map graphic).

Kunming, already connected to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and other Chinese metropolises, is thus providing a gateway for the entire Southeast Asian region to global trading routes. It represents China’s world-spanning Belt and Road Initiative in action.

The China-Laos segment of this transcontinental network was completed in December 2021 – on schedule after five years of construction – with a budget of $6 billion. The other regional segments are still under construction. A network of new motorway “expressways” complement the rail links, the configuration resembling a Chinese fan spreading out.

The Pan-Asian Rail Network is planned for completion by 2030 at a total cost of $112 billion. Some 30,000 kms of tracks will be laid, carrying both high-speed and conventional speed trains. Beijing is financing up to 70 percent of the construction costs, with the remainder capitalized through bilateral loans. The overall design is backed by the inter-governmental trade bloc, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It is an awesome mega-project that is aimed at boosting economic growth for the region. Inner land areas are to be opened up for agriculture, tourism and transport of goods.

Over a century ago, the British and French colonial powers attempted to build railways in Southeast Asia – and failed. A combination of world wars and financial burden derailed former projects. The Japanese imperialists tried to link Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) with an infamous railroad built by prisoners of war – and failed. Now China is laying down infrastructure based on a wholly different concept of partnership and joint development. All the signs indicate that China is succeeding.

The achievement of the China-Laos rail link alone is impressive. It covers over 1,000 kilometers from Kunming to Vientiane, the Laotian capital. It required the building of hundreds of tunnels and bridges through mountainous territory spanning twice the meandering Mekong River.

President Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos hailed the railway as “opening a new era of development and prosperity” for his landlocked and relatively poor nation of 7 million people. Largely funded by China, the rail link will open up Laos for trade with its giant northern neighbor and beyond. For China, the links to Laos and the other Southeast Asian nations provide additional access to land and sea routes to global markets. It’s a stellar example of the “win-win” philosophy that guides the comprehensive BRI vision espoused by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Belt and Road Initiative was launched by President Xi in 2013. Already nine years old, the BRI has seen 146 nations joining the global partnership which is explicitly based on multipolar co-development. The Pan-Asian Rail Network is an embodiment of that vision.

One would think that such a vision for mutual prosperity and peaceful partnership might be welcomed by all. Not so among the US-led Western powers and allies.

American and allied news media have embarked on a relentless campaign to denigrate and demonize China and its BRI projects.

The Australian Financial Review ran a recent article with the dubious headline: “Can the West Dismantle China’s Pan-Asian Railway Dream?” The article went on to say: “Fast train plans are a concern for Western nations worried about China’s growing influence in the region.”

The Financial Review doesn’t explain the means or legalities of “dismantling” these projects. Neither does it spell out the justification for “concerns” about China’s growing influence. The tacit assumption is based on a notion of Sinophobia and a self-ordained right by the West to destroy China’s investments and infrastructure projects. The self-appointed West evidently feels entitled to judge and act unilaterally – even criminally – with impunity and without consulting the opinion of countries that have embraced mutual partnerships with China.

The U.S. government-owned Radio Free Asia continually alleges that China is seeking to dominate its regional neighbors through “debt traps”. On the newly opened rail link, the RFA reported: “Giant China, tiny Laos link up with launch of high-speed train”, and went on to assert that Beijing’s financing of the project was a means to dominate through debt.

This “debt-trap” accusation is a recurring insinuation by Western media to undermine China’s bilateral relations. There is an arrogant assumption by Western powers that they know better than Laos and other BRI participating nations. There is also a dubious pretense that the United States and its allies are somehow the sole benefactors of other nations, uniquely looking out for their national well-being. The facts are contrary to such pretensions. It is the Western capitalist states that have historically used financial debt to subjugate and control developing nations for exploitation of their natural resources.

Shouldn’t Western powers perhaps consult with China’s BRI partners about how they actually assess their prospects? In all the reams of negative reporting, Western media rarely if ever report the willing partnering with China of countries like Laos. It’s like their opinions don’t count. The United States and its Western allies simply presume to know better.

Another recurring unsubstantiated allegation made by Western media is that China’s colossal infrastructure plans are causing large-scale ecological damage and displacing local farming communities. Somehow, Radio Free Asia cited precisely that “a total of 4,411” farming families were made landless by the China-Laos railway. The publication did not say how that seemingly exact figure was obtained. It did, however, admit that “most of them have been compensated”.

Typically, no credible evidence is presented by Western media for claims of detrimental impact. This author journeyed on the China-Laos rail link at the end of September and viewed endless, rolling green landscapes, showing minimal ecological disruption beyond the laying of tracks. The same can be said for a new expressway road bridge under construction across the Mekong River between China and Laos. The verdant jungles surrounding the bridge and motorway worksites appeared untouched.

The negative claims by the United States regarding China’s BRI in Southeast Asia and in Laos in particular are bitterly ironic. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped over 260 million bombs on Laos between 1964-73 in a covert operation dubbed Rolling Barrel aimed at defeating the North Vietnamese army and Vietcong guerrilla. That criminal American aggression made Laos the “most bombed country in history” – exceeding the tonnage of explosives dropped during the Second World War. Over 50,000 Laotian people were killed by the American carpet bombing, which until today has left an odious legacy of deadly cluster bomblets scattered over the mountainous jungles. Indeed a major part of China’s rail construction involved extensive de-mining and clearing of American unexploded ordnance across remote terrain.

Despite Western attempts to smear China’s BRI, it is pushing ahead unabated. Southeast Asia demonstrates eloquently that all roads and railways are leading to China which is set to supplant the United States as the world’s biggest economy. And the West is evidently not happy about that because it threatens U.S.-led hegemony and its ambitions of unipolar dominance.

China’s ascendant global power, based on partnership and mutual development, is showing up the increasingly bankrupt condition of the United States and its Western allies. These has-been capitalist powers are coming off their rails, if not the owners of train-wreck economies.

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.