The widening political gulf between China and Taiwan and a swathe of hydrological and engineering hurdles are not holding back Beijing’s ambition to construct a mammoth tunnel or bridge across the strait separating the self-governing island from the mainland.
The idea of an express rail link from Beijing to Taipei, via southeastern Fujian province, has been floated multiple times. Now a definitive plan for the monumental project has been included along with a slew of shovel-ready and long-term developments in Beijing’s broad 2035 Visions, which were endorsed by the National People’s Congress earlier this month.
A dotted line drawn across the Taiwan Strait stands out on a map illustrating a cobweb of new routes envisioned by China for the next 15 years.
Earlier this month, Russia’s ambassador to China Andrey Denisov was quoted by Phoenix Television and other state media as saying that he was awed by Beijing’s grandiose blueprint for projects and that he would look forward to one day taking a bullet train from Beijing to visit the “province of Taiwan.”
“China has the engineering prowess [to build a link in the Taiwan Strait] as its design and construction capabilities have been proved by the completion of the 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge,” said Denisov.
A high-speed section of track across the Taiwan Strait is the only missing link. China’s railway building bonanza envisions a line from Beijing’s sprawling South Railway Station traversing close to 2,000 kilometers all the way down to an island in Fujian merely 126 kilometers from Taiwan.
These trains blast along at 350km per hour, meaning a ride from Fujian’s provincial capital of Fuzhou to Taipei would take less than one hour. Beijing’s hope of rivetting the renegade island into its national plans, however, is tempered by the reality of the long-simmering feud between the two sides.
Any bid to reach a political pact, a likely prerequisite for the project, must navigate the choppy waters of geopolitics and may be scuppered by a groundswell of opposition from the Taiwanese people, amid the island’s rising anti-China sentiment fanned by the ruling, independence-tilting Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Observers quoted in Chinese state media stress that the project – despite the current political deadlock – shows Beijing’s confidence that a reunification treaty could be worked out by 2035 to delineate Taiwan’s role and its political and governance status within China.
Beijing has never relinquished a military option for incorporating Taiwan to the mainland, a holdover of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. While frequently deploying Chinese warplanes and ships that intrude on Taiwan’s airspace and claimed waters, Beijing has also signaled its “goodwill” for a peaceful solution.
To be sure, Beijing will need to tackle many technical challenges to straddle the strait. But with its deep reservoir of talent and the experience gained from China’s infrastructure building spree since 2000 that crammed the 50 years’ worth of construction in the West into merely two decades, it has the engineering know-how.
Wu Zhiming, a professor with the Tsinghua University’s School of Civil Engineering and a key advocate of the proposed link to Taiwan, told reporters that experts would still need to debate and decide on what form – a tunnel, a bridge or a hybrid – the future link would take.
Wu revealed to Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing broadsheet Tai Kung Pao that he had recommended the route from Fujian’s Pingtan Island to Taiwan’s Hsinchu to carry both rail and road traffic on the shortest line among the various designs. He claimed there would be no unsurmountable design or construction challenges as China had long been a global “precedence-setter” in engineering and mega-projects.
That said, the 130km-route would dwarf the world’s current longest underwater tunnel, the 50-km Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom, as well as those of similar design like Japan’s Seikan Tunnel.
But the sheer length will not daunt Chinese engineers and constructors, according to Wu. He wrote on his blog that the 55-km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the longest sea-crossing structure of its kind in the world, may serve as a design reference for the link, as the bridge’s designs and technologies could be applied to future projects.
Emulating the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge’s form, the design would call for the construction of two artificial islands in the Taiwan Strait, each connected to land via a bridge. A tunnel would be bored under the bottom of the strait between the two islands to insulate traffic from the elements.
The middle of the strait is prone to high waves and is also seismically active and frequently hit by typhoons.
Xinhua reported that Chinese engineers knew the geology and geomorphology of the Taiwan Strait “like the palm of their hands” and that, with the mainland’s high-speed railway extending to the island closest to Taiwan, Beijing could break ground on a link quickly with the requisite political foundation, including if Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party could return to power in 2024.
It is also believed that the strait link could be another of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet projects. The leader intimated in the 2035 Visions plan that reclaiming the island by that year would realize China’s great renascence.
The official news agency claimed that the link would not be a bureaucratic boondoggle or economic waste as it would spur the exchange and flow of people between the mainland and island, and give more impetus to Taiwan’s economic development.