Sino-Indonesian high-speed rail cooperation: A signal of more to come

2022-08-11 09:13:45
Summary:After delays due to COVID-19, land disputes, and environmental concerns the news of 12 high-speed electric passeng...
After delays due to COVID-19, land disputes, and environmental concerns the news of 12 high-speed electric passenger trains rolling off the production line in Qingdao, China, is a major step forward for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project edging closer to operation.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, through the use of trains traveling up to 350km per hour, will transform a journey of over three hours into one of 40 minutes. Moreover, assuming wise governance prevails, this project signals the dawn of a new age of South-South development between two Asian giants.

If you've been to Indonesia then hi-tech rail infrastructure is not the thing that comes to mind. This was also true of China a few decades ago. Today, China has wowed the world by demonstrating that developing countries can surpass the developed world when it comes to public transport. Consequently, Indonesia's cooperation with China, which will see it proudly join the league of super-fast rail transportation, represents a major achievement in breaking out of its assigned place in the world order of "haves" and "have nots".

Considering many developed countries have neglected their transport systems, Indonesia should be rightfully proud. However, it's more than showboating. If China's success is anything to go by, high-speed rail can raise the economic prospects of Indonesia.

On an island as densely populated as Java the economic and environmental argument for rail transport is more than evident. Economically, tourism is boosted, business desires to be located where there is greater convenience, and city clusters start to work in synchronicity. Environmentally, the reliance on polluting and wasteful private car ownership is cut and flights, which don't bring any economic benefit to intermediary towns, become less necessary.

Undoubtedly, the current Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project could not have come about without a healthy win-win mindset between Indonesia and China, which recognizes disputes in other areas do not need to cloud comprehensive cooperation. Let us not forget that Indonesia and China share overlapping border maritime claims in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, both sides have managed to compartmentalize this dispute to the extent that today both sides' navies are conducting joint naval exercises such as search and rescue missions as well as communication drills.

When I think of Sino-Indonesian cooperation I can't help but think of Indonesia's national motto, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" which means "Unity in Diversity." As two giant nations, comprised of multiple ethnicities, which despite differences are able to unite, it is little wonder that Indonesia and China are able to focus on the bigger picture and unite for a larger good. It is this example that others in the Global South and the developed world should follow.

South-South peaceful coexistence and common prosperity are more than an ideal. For China and Indonesia, it is a pragmatic reality that is forming, which is exemplified by China being both Indonesia's largest export and import partner. Indeed, China, after Singapore represents the second largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) which is crucial for Indonesia's development.

Thus, while the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project is in the public eye there are numerous other BRI projects in development. These include the Morowali Industrial Park, the Probolinggo-Banyuwangi highway, and the Batangtoru Hydroelectric Power Plant.

This is just the start though and I believe relations can grow and Indonesia can benefit more. With more FDI there is no reason why Indonesia can't master certain technologies, move up the industrial chain, and eventually export more finished and high-tech products.

The dreamer in me looks at Indonesia, made up of over 17,000 islands, and sees a future where the country is the leader in cross-ocean tunnelling and bridges. In this future, a high-speed rail runs from Bali to Beijing and beyond. Here Indonesia is not just a link on the Maritime Silk Road but firmly entrenched on the land route too.

For Indonesia to achieve even the initial modest dream of development and raising itself up the value chain its government must remain disciplined and refrain from any divide and rule attempts carried out by outside powers. Should Indonesia follow a plan of cooperation and independent development it must be vigilant for division being sown through its liberal democratic system as well as attempts to leverage ethnic grievances for the pleasures of those who don't subscribe to Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.


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