Can a Japan–China rivalry drive high-speed rail sustainability?

A worker stands next to a high-speed train at the maintenance and repair depot of China Railway High-speed (CRH) rail service during a media tour in Beijing, China, 30 August 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

Author: Motoko Aizawa, Observatory for Sustainable Infrastructure

Seeking transparent, responsible and sustainable financing for quality infrastructure projects, the G20 leaders endorsed the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment at this year’s summit.

These guidelines are meant to address criticism lodged against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The key features neatly correspond to the litany of complaints about the BRI, such as allegations concerning corruption and debt traps, secrecy, poor quality and energy projects that burn coal.

To the yin of the BRI is the yang of Japan’s superior capacity for ensuring quality in the infrastructure it exports — or so Japan Inc. will have us believe – even when China is widely seen as having an upper hand in infrastructure bidding based on speed and price.

The ongoing high-speed railway (HSR) rivalry between China and Japan vividly illustrates how the two nations collide over opportunities to export infrastructure. Originally pioneered by Japan, HSR became the norm in Europe over time, but it was China that revitalised HSR with magnetic levitation technology. Over 12,000 miles (19,300 km) of its HSR network was built over a mere nine years. HSR has become a significant component of the BRI that is aimed at facilitating connectivity and ensuring Chinese exports of goods and imports of natural resources.

Once China began to explore HSR opportunities abroad, a collision with Japan’s offering was inevitable. In 2015, the rivalry came into full view when China bested Japan in the bidding war for the Jakarta–Bandung HSR line. That same year, Japan’s Hitachi and Canada’s Bombardier delivered high-speed rail stock for service across Italy and last month won an order from Trenitalia for 14 more trains.

Japanese companies continue to …continue reading