It sounds like the stuff of an Agatha Christie novel, or Edwardian travelogues that unfold over weeks rather than days. But if high-level negotiations between China and 17 countries throughout Asia and Europe bear fruit, passengers could one day traverse the 8,100 km between London and Beijing in just 48 hours, travelling at a blinding 400 km/h.
The idea is part of a proposed high-speed rail expansion that would connect China with the West and see all roads leading to the Middle Kingdom. One would link Singapore to Beijing; another would run through Russia to Germany. Still another would link China to Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Another prospective partner is India, which appears willing to overlook tensions with Beijing to tap expertise China has gained during construction of its domestic high-speed network. While the projects could take a decade to complete, all parties appear to be in a hurry. “We’ve already carried out the survey work for the European network,” says Wang Menshu, a senior consultant on China’s railways. “The central and eastern European countries are eager for us to start.” China is even offering to build lines in exchange for natural resources rather than capital investment, says Wang.
The network’s completion would help cement China’s position as the world’s economic centre of gravity—a prospect that doesn’t thrill skeptics worried by the country’s growing might. But others are encouraged by Beijing’s leadership on the railway initiative. “If they’re putting their own resources into it, and if they’re acting collaboratively—taking these other governments into their confidence—these are good signs,” says Amitav Acharya, a professor at the American University in Washington. “China has to be at centre stage in Asia, and something like this is a big symbolic step for them.”