A sense of uncertainty hangs over American infrastructure, as the United States muddles through with its aging nuclear plants, careworn bridges, and potholed highways. In past eras, the United States excelled at building major projects; now, it lags behind other countries. That is particularly true in one area: building railroads. Even finding money for maintenance can be a problem. A few hours after a passenger train derailed near Philadelphia on May 12 last year, Congress voted to cut Amtrak funding by $252 million, further starving the nation’s beleaguered carrier.
Today, China dominates the railway market, particularly for high-speed rail systems, which the Chinese are busily exporting to East Asia, Europe, and even the United States. China began to invest heavily in high-speed rail in 2007, seeking to create jobs and to improve the mobility of people and goods in its rapidly growing economy. Between 2008 and 2011, the Chinese government made use of its famed central planning, its easy access to credit, and its willingness to invoke eminent domain to seize land in order to build 6,000 miles of high-speed rail tracks, connecting most major cities in the country to each other.
Then, in 2011, Beijing launched a campaign of what observers—and eventually China itself—termed “high-speed rail diplomacy,” as government-controlled Chinese firms sold technology to Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Thailand, among other places. Beijing hoped these trains would not just carry passengers but would also deliver Chinese influence. As one Chinese government press release put it, for Beijing, building and exporting a high-speed rail system represented a “strategy rather than just a normal project.” The trade with resource-rich neighbors like Kazakhstan and other central Asian nations could only enhance the stream of raw materials like oil and copper that China needs to meet its growth projections. High-speed networks that are extended into neighboring countries could, conceivably, serve a military purpose as well.
Beijing has also long wanted to add the United States to the list of places where it hopes to use high-speed rail to generate profits and spread China’s technological footprint and market share. After all, if the United States can’t muster the political willpower to build out its own network of bullet trains—and so far it has not—why not offer a helping hand?