Snaking around rugged mountains and over deep river valleys, a train raced along a $5.9 billion Chinese-built railway connecting Laos and China this month, its inaugural run marking the debut of China’s first international rail network. For Laos, a landlocked nation of 7 million, the 257-mile line from the Laotian capital of Vientiane north to China’s border creates a link to global supply chains that could help Laos attract investment and trade, create jobs, and fuel economic growth.
For China, the project is the first phase of an ambitious strategy to expand its rail network through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia to Singapore. Yet the debt generated by the venture is a source of concern not just for Laos but also China, experts say, as the economic benefits could take years to realize. And the worries on both sides underscore a growing debate over Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the China-Laos railway is a key regional link, and whether it amounts to “debt-trap diplomacy.”