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China eyes plan to connect Southeast Asian rail links

June 19, 2024 5:33 PM IST

Anwar Ibrahim | East Coast Rail Link | Li Qiang | Kunming | ByteDance | China | ASEAN | Malaysia | Google | Asia-Pacific | Microsoft | Southeast Asia

China said it was willing to study a plan to connect Malaysia’s $10-billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) to other China-backed railway projects in Laos and Thailand, potentially expanding Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative across Southeast Asia.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who is on a three-day visit to Malaysia, said on Wednesday the proposal would make the central line of a proposed Pan-Asia Railway, running from Kunming in China to Singapore, a reality.

“This will better promote the construction of new international land and sea trade corridors, enhance regional connectivity, and deepen the building of the ASEAN community,” Li said.

Li was speaking during a ground-breaking ceremony at a construction site for the ECRL – a 665-km (413-mile) railway that will link peninsular Malaysia’s east and west coasts by the end of 2026. Malaysia’s government said in March it would consider extending the China-backed project to its border with Thailand.

Li is on the third leg of a trip that has included New Zealand and Australia, as China looks to expand influence and investments in the Asia-Pacific region amid an ongoing rivalry with the United States.

He met Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in the administrative capital of Putrajaya, following his arrival in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday for a visit to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

After Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, Li and Anwar witnessed the signing of more than a dozen pacts, including renewing a five-year programmeto collaborate in areas such as trade and investment, agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure and financial services, a statement after the meeting showed.

The programme, which will expire in 2028, was first introduced in 2013.

FRESH DURIAN IMPORTS

China also agreed to allow imports of fresh durian from Malaysia after it meets sanitary requirements, the statement added.

Malaysia, one of the world’s biggest producers of the spiky, smelly fruit, was previously allowed to ship only the whole frozen fruit and its products to China, with exports valued at 1.19 billion ringgit ($253 million) in 2023.

The two countries also vowed to review visa-free travel arrangements set to expire in coming months.

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner since 2009, and the foreign ministry said total trade was valued at $98.9 billion in 2023.

Anwar has pledged to remain neutral on China’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States. Malaysia has announced large investments by companies from both countries this year, including from China’s ByteDance and U.S. tech giants Google and Microsoft.

Anwar has said Malaysia considered China an important trading ally and accused some Western powers of “China-phobia”, amid ongoing clashes between neighbouring the Philippines and China in the disputed South China Sea.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Anwar and Li on Wednesday agreed that China and relevant countries from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should independently handle the South China Sea issue, according to a report by Chinese news agency Xinhua.

The two leaders also pledged to work towards an early conclusion of a free trade agreement between China and ASEAN, Xinhua reported.

(Reuters)

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Last updated on: 24th July 2024