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China’s grand railways: Is Singapore the vital link?

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With China’s planned 3,000-km pan-Asian railway network, Chinese rail lines will extend further south, extending through Malaysia and feeding into Singapore.

Being the most developed member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Singapore also has one of the strongest relationships with Washington in the region, which adds significance for China.
“If Beijing can court Singapore successfully and brings it into its orbit, that likely means that Singapore may decrease its security relationship with the U.S.” and would give Beijing more space to operate in Southeast Asia, says Stephen Nagy, Senior Associate Professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo. “It could mean that ASEAN would become more amenable to Chinese demands, such as its push for control over the South China Sea,” he added.

Singapore is also the entryway to the Strait of Malacca, the chokepoint for maritime traffic connecting the oil-rich Middle East to energy-hungry East Asia. More than this, the U.S. parks vessels in Singapore’s ports and conducts training exercises with its navy.

A recent shift in Malaysian politics though has positioned China’s plans for Singapore on the back burner. After the elections in May, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad decided to delay the $20 billion 688-km east coast rail line connecting southern Thailand to Kuala Lumpur, and postpone for two years a 350-km high-speed rail link between the Malaysian capital and Singapore.

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China has been keen to develop its inland and has invested heavily for its westward push toward Central and Southeast Asia. The country’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative is designed to create transport infrastructure to enable the importation of energy and other vital resources from, and export goods to, other parts of the Eurasian continent without depending on its coastal area which is known to be vulnerable to potential Western sanctions and naval blockades.

The said plan known as a multibillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has also been called a “Chinese Marshall Plan,” a state-backed crusade for global supremacy, an incentive package for a sluggish economy, and a gigantic marketing operation for something that was already happening – Chinese investment all over the world. With Singapore as an indispensable gateway, the project’s success will heavily lean on how SG plays its gargantuan role in the middle of this ambitious endeavor.

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