For all of its grand ambitions, China has had some problems implementing high-speed rail—severe safety issues, construction fraud, and lack of ridership are just some of the issues the country has had to deal with recently. But China will not turn back from its vision of high-speed rail. And the country cares so much that it wants its neighbors to have fast trains, too. China is starting by extending tracks into northern Laos.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and it currently only has two miles of rail lines. But the nation anticipates that a high-speed rail system built by the Chinese could increase tourism, gambling, and local construction jobs.
No word on when construction will begin on the Laos line, but this is just the beginning of China's plan for a trans-Asian railway system. Eventually, the country envisions a system that could zip riders from China to Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Part of the reasoning is economic security. As it stands, China does more trade with Western countries than with fellow Asian nations. But in the event of a maritime blockade or a disaster, a high-speed rail system could easily allow China to trade goods with its neighbors—and a link to Burma would give the country another access point to the Indian Ocean if the Straits of Malacca became tangled in an international dispute.
This is all still a long way away; China has high-speed rail struggles of its own to deal with. Just this week, the country opted to lower the top speed of the Beijing to Shanghai bullet train in part because of maintenance and safety concerns. But China's dreams of a world linked by high-speed rail are commendable. Unlike the U.S., which can't build a mile of high-speed rail without years of wrangling, China doesn't have an elected government or concerned voters getting in the way—so the trans-Asian rail link may actually become reality.