Every day, slowly but surely, like the fox and the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic novella, Kunming is getting closer to Southeast Asia… and closer… and closer. Around this time last year, work began on a high-speed railway to link the capital of China’s Yunnan province with the Laotian capital of Vientiane, and eventually with Singapore. Last month, Kunming’s Deputy Mayor Ruan Fengbin took a road trip to Singapore, telling people and governments on the way that Yunnan, China’s emerging economic powerhouse, is within everyone’s easy reach. Later this June, a spanking new international airport will formally open for business in Kunming, vastly expanding its air links with Asia, and the world.
The $3.6-billion airport reflects Kunming’s growing economic role in Asia and, appropriately, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the British architects’ firm, has given the 500,000-sq m facility the shape of a giant bird ready to fly. With two 400-metre runways, Kunming Changshui, as the new airport is called, will be able to handle 27 million passengers a year now, 38 million by 2020 and, with further expansion, 68 million later, becoming the second-largest aviation hub in China after Beijing.
The road to Singapore is ready but for a bridge on the Mekong. That bridge will be the fifth Thai-Lao river crossing and will link Thailand’s Bung Kan province and Laos’ Borikhamxay. The two countries have decided to build it, hopefully, by 2014. Although Deputy Mayor Ruan, being on a leisurely friendship mission, took 11 days to complete his trip, spending 10 hours on the road every day, he proved the viability of the passage. “We’re satisfied with the new highway,” he said and hoped, once some remaining problems are sorted out, like border formalities and high costs of transport to and from Kunming, the route would be bustling with traffic.
The Kunming-Singapore high-speed is supposed to be a 3,900-km railway, part of the proposed trans-Asian railway network, for trains to travel at 250 km or more an hour and cover the distance in 15 hours or so. The line will pass from Kunming through Mohan, a Chinese town on the Laotian border, all the way to Vientiane, then cross the border into Thailand’s Nong Khai province and run southwest to Bangkok, and on to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Work on a railway logistics centre at Mohan has already begun. So has work on a second major train station at Kunming, sprawling over a 100,000 sq m area, roughly three times the size of the existing one, which will have 30 lines connecting it with Southeast Asia and the rest of the China. Meanwhile, China has offered to build the $7-billion and 421-km Laotian stretch of the proposed railway, which, because of Laos’ mountainous terrain, will involve building 165 bridges and 69 tunnels. There’s no hurry, though. The Chinese expect the railway to be operational only by 2020, factoring in all likely delays that might occur at the Laotian end.
The 2020 deadline allows for other temporary hiccups as well. For example, the new Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra isn’t considering the Nong Khai-Bangkok high-speed as an immediate priority. It isn’t against the idea – the pressure of circumstances is bound to make it happen sooner or later – but would want connections laid out with Chiang Mai (745 km) first and then with Nakhon Ratchasima (256 km), Hua Hin (225 km), and Rayong (221 km).
The Chinese are playing their cards well. They’ve expressed a strong desire to help Thailand with the Chiang Mai line, suggesting that 89 per cent of the line should be built on elevated tracks to insulate it from flooding. At the same time, a joint Sino-Thai committee is now engaged in reappraising the proposal for Nong Khai.
China isn’t the only one to want to be high-speed partners with Thailand. Japan has submitted pre-feasibility studies on two projects – Bangkok-Chiang Mai and Bangkok-Rayong – and would like to be involved in the Nong Khai line as well. On a recent visit to Japan, Prime Minister Yingluk is said to have been particularly impressed by the efficiency of its bullet trains. While the main tussle will be between China and Japan, South Korea is in the running, too, and is believed to have sent in its own proposal.
No matter how it works out, the future is for Kunming and it’s getting ready to entwine its destiny with Southeast Asia. With five international dry ports, 10 logistics parks, and 14 cargo distribution centres in the making in and around the Yunnanese capital, and road and railway linkages spreading out in all directions across the Greater Mekong sub-region, thanks to a major initiative of the Asian Development Bank, Kunming’s silent steps are not so silent anymore, nor are their echoes too distant.