Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in a warm embrace at the Bali G20 Summit. Image: Facebook / Pool

JAKARTA – Taking time out from the G20 Summit, President Joko Widodo and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday watched via video link the operational trial of the Chinese-funded Jakarta-Bandung fast-railway, still six months before the long-delayed service begins daily operations.

More than US$2 billion over budget, doubts linger over whether the Indonesian showcase of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will ever turn a profit, given the time-consuming commute to the stations at either end of the new 142-kilometer line.

The two leaders witnessed the sleek train reaching 80 kilometers per hour (kph), a quarter of its top speed, over a 20-kilometer section of track near Bandung, the best event the government could contrive to coincide with Xi’s first visit to Indonesia since 2013.

In the nine years since that occasion, bilateral economic relations have expanded dramatically with Chinese investment leading the way in transforming nickel-rich Indonesia into a newly-industrialized state and on the cusp of the electric battery revolution.

Infrastructure, too, has played a role but not always with the desired results, starting with China’s crash power program in the early 2000s, which took longer than expected due to a mismatch between Chinese turbines and local coal. 

Under the headline “Indonesia’s Pride,” the pro-Beijing China Daily sought to put a brave face on the $8 billion Jakarta-Bandung undertaking and the land acquisition and technical problems that set the completion date back by nearly four years.

“The project underscores the strength of economic co-operation between the two nations and how such collaboration stands to benefit not just them, but the rest of the region,” said the weekly in its November 11-17 issue.

Building a legacy as the “infrastructure president,” Widodo had previously picked up on that theme, telling Antara news agency: “We expect the railway to be part of international connectivity, either by integrating it with seaports or airports.”

Seated in chairs in front of a large screen, he and Xi saw the two uniformed drivers salute before stepping aboard the train and guiding it out of the station as PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia (KCIC) staff members waved Chinese and Indonesian flags.

The Jakarta-Bandung line is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: KCIC

Beijing’s goal is to see an eventual 3,900-kilometer fast-rail link between Kunming and Singapore, but Thailand and Malaysia have yet to fully commit to the mega-project for various reasons, chief among them the fear of a debt trap that has ensnared countries like Sri Lanka.  

Indonesia’s first bullet train has a top speed of 350 kilometers per hour and, despite two stops en route, is designed to cut the journey through picturesque hillside tea plantations and deep jungle ravines from three hours to just 40 minutes.

But the time it takes to negotiate the traffic-choked, 14-kilometer route from downtown Jakarta to the fast-rail terminal near Halim airport in the southern suburbs will add at least an hour to the trip.

Even then, the train will deposit passengers at Tegalluar, a satellite town still another hour away from Bandung, the provincial capital of West Java and Indonesia’s fourth biggest city.

That means the overall travel time will be more than it takes a car ride on the existing expressway – and only slightly less than the regular train service which ends in Bandung itself. 

While it may be a novel experience to start with, experts doubt that the passenger flow will reach the targeted 44,000 a day when state-owned PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI) only carries up to 7,000 passengers over the same route. 

Although Japan undertook the feasibility study, Widodo controversially chose China to build the railway in 2015 because of the perception that it would get the job done faster as a centerpiece of his ambitious BRI infrastructure program.

But the joint venture between China Railway International and Indonesian state-owned companies ran into early and predictable difficulties over the purchase of land, then suffered further delays due to the Covid pandemic and unstable soil conditions at one of the 13 tunnels. 

The Indonesian government was forced to dip into its own pocket to pay for the $2 billion cost overrun, using money earmarked for other projects, reportedly including West Java’s Jakarta-Sukabumi toll road which has yet to be opened.

For all the headaches, however, officials still talk about eventually extending the Bandung line to Jogjakarta and on to the East Java port city of Surabaya, a distance of about 725 kilometers through one of the world’s most densely-populated islands.

China’s only real success story has been last year’s completion of a 414-kilometer fast-rail link between the Chinese border and the Lao capital of Vientiane – even if the $5.96 billion price tag weighs heavily on Laos’ national debt – and China’s political influence that comes with it.

A promotional poster for the 414-kilometer Laos-China railway project that promised to transform Laos from landlocked to land-linked. Photo: Facebook

Last May, China Daily reported the new rail corridor had handled more than 2.7 million passenger trips and 2.9 million tonnes of cargo, bound for Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Singapore, since it opened on December 3 last year.

While Xi and his entourage move on from Bali to Bangkok this week for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Beijing’s efforts to tout BRI and regional connectivity are likely to fall on deaf ears, especially with a global recession on the horizon.

For years now, China has pressed the Thais to continue the rail link from Vientiane, across a dedicated bridge to the Mekong River border town of Nong Khai, then to Nakhon Ratchasima and Bangkok’s new Bang Sue Grand Station, the largest in Southeast Asia.

Instead, the Thais are first prioritizing a $946 million, 211-kilometer railway between the Thai capital and Hua Hin, a resort town on the Gulf of Thailand, which will be funded by the Thai government itself and won’t be finished until 2032.

Under a long-term master plan, other fast-rail links are to be undertaken in cost-conscious phases, including one from Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima and a 750-kilometer extension from Hua Hin to the Malaysian border town of Padang Besar.

In Malaysia, China is funding the BRI-backed, $12.08 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), stretching 665 kilometers from busy Port Klang on the Malacca Strait across the peninsular to Kelantan on the northeast coast. It is due for completion in 2026.

But protracted planning for a 350-kilometer fast-rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore came to a full stop in 2018 when then-incoming prime minister Mahathir Mohamad postponed the project, playing down its benefits and citing high construction costs.

Last September, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong told Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob that Singapore is open to fresh proposals from Malaysia on reviving the $15.2 billion venture, which would cut travel between the cities to 90 minutes.

China and Japan have both been competing for the lucrative contract, but while it has a deeper meaning for Beijing because of its vision of a Pan-Asia rail network, Indonesia’s experience – and the wider fear of drowning in a sea of red ink – may tell against it.

Shawn W. Crispin contributed reporting from Bangkok, Thailand