China's 16,000-Mile, 17-Nation Railroad Faces Bumpy Ride

China may have to move some metaphorical mountains to build its proposed 16,000-mile, high-speed train network from Beijing to London, with lines running to Southeast Asia, India and Europe. For a start, that means proving the railroad is economically viable for the 17 nations it will run through, and managing some treacherous diplomatic terrain.

A senior consultant on the rail project said that China wants participating countries not to pay in cash, but rather with natural resources. That tactic could represent "a sort of neo-imperialism desired by the countries to be colonized," argues Yonah Freemark of Transport Politic:

Will they regret the selling off of their natural resources in exchange for better transportation offerings? Is this reasonable foreign investment on the part of China, or is it an attempt to take control of the economies of poor countries?

Even if China proves that its resource-exchange plan is mutually beneficial, it will still have to convince European countries that the rail line is economically worthwhile, especially as maritime transport is already so cheap.

China will also need to do some political maneuvering. For one, the railroad-for-resources plan might face outside resistance from places like India, which is wary of its neighbor's growing economic heft, and from Russia, "which sees resource-rich Central Asia as its sphere of influence," The Economist reports. Questions of whether China will be able to sign all the countries up "only multiply when it is borne in mind that Tehran is one of the mooted stops."

The deal gets more complicated when considering allegations from manufacturers in Europe, who say that in complying with Chinese regulations, they were forced to turn over technology that is now being used by the Chinese to undersell them both internationally and at home. The Financial Times reports: "The official state policy on using foreign rail technology is known as 'introduce, digest, absorb then innovate.'"

Once China convinces the 17 countries that a high-speed line is both economically and politically acceptable, all that's left is the small matter of laying 16,000 miles of track across international borders, with many countries using incompatible gauges of track. Considering the obstacles, this rail network may be derailed before it even breaks ground.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.

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