A file photo shows Chinese Premier Li Keqiang introducing a Chinese bullet-train model to his then Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra during his visit to Thailand in 2013. Photo: Xinhua

Bangkok has given the green light to Thailand’s first high-speed railway, spearheaded by China, an on-again-off-again project that was once hailed as the crowning project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Thai media say the country’s National Environment Commission has approved the environmental impact assessment report for the 253- kilometer portion from Bangkok to the northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima, with construction expected to commence by the end of this month and slated to be up and running no later than 2021.

Thailand’s high-speed rail network plan.

The second phase, yet to be finalized, will stretch the railway to the Thai-Laotian border, where it will connect to the rail link from Vientiane to Kunming, capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province.

When the whole project is completed, bullet trains running at 250km/h will be shuttling commuters and tourists among the three countries.

The project was first broached in October 2013 during a meeting between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his Thai counterpart at the time, Yingluck Shinawatra, with an amiable agreement known as “rice for bullet trains,” and the two parties expressed hope that the railway could be commissioned some time in 2017.

But a military coup that ousted Yingluck’s democratically elected government ground the project to a standstill, and soon junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha turned the tables on the previous contract and ordered a restart to the negotiations.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha takes a window seat on board a special train. After ousting a democratically elected leader in a coup, he trashed her government’s ‘rice for bullet train’ agreement with China. Photo: Bangkok Post via AFP/Chanat Katanyu

A new memorandum of understanding was signed by the two governments in December 2014, but disputes and wrangling over funding, development rights and other issues dragged on until this year. In the end Bangkok decided not to rely on Chinese capital, contractors or operators but to procure China-made rolling stock as a trade-off to mollify Beijing.

Years of delay and talks between the two countries have resulted in a railway that is totally different in length and routing from the original, and Beijing blames Tokyo for meddling in the talks, as the latter dangled a 0.1% interest rate for its loans to fund the express rail link between Bangkok and the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, with its own Shinkansen bullet-train technologies on offer.

Thai and Chinese officials attend a launch ceremony for a supporting project for the express rail link. Photo: Xinhua

Around 250 Chinese engineers and architects already certified by the Thai government will sit on the consultant panel for the 179.4 billion baht (US$5.5 billion) project, and Chinese suppliers will reap some 43.7 billion baht, including 5.2 billion baht for design and consulting and 38.5 billion baht for trains, tracks and supporting equipment, Xinhua reports.

The final costs may have included deep discounts, observers say.

It’s not the first time that Chinese and Japanese construction and equipment firms have faced off when tapping the infrastructure boom in Southeast Asia. China outbid Japan in 2015 and bagged fat orders for the 150km Jakarta-Bandung express rail link to be built on Indonesia’s Java island.

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