China-Vietnam Railway

Last year, China and Vietnam unveiled plans to refurbish a colonial-era railway between the two countries. It was an attempt to update a historical legacy – and also signified new bilateral dynamics in a consequential and sometimes fraught regional relationship.

Announced on 25 November, the Vietnamese government has proposed a rail project from Hai Phong through Hanoi to Lao Cai, on the border with China, for both freight and passenger trains. Vietnamese officials have said the project has been in planning since at least 2008, and a Chinese rail consultant completed a survey of the route between 2015 and 2019, delivering a blueprint of a 392-kilometre rail line with 38 stations, at an estimated cost of US $4.3 billion. Yet despite the new plan, it is not, in fact, a new route.

The relationship

between these


countries has

often been

unsettled, whether

by maritime

territorial disputes

in the South

China Sea/East

Sea or other

strife. Although

both sides usually

constrain such



escalation can

never be ruled out.

The rail line from Hanoi through Lao Cai to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, was built by the French in the 1900s, the final decade of the Chinese (Qing) Empire. At that time, Beijing had difficulty retaining sovereignty over territory which the colonial powers claimed for their respective areas of interests, and France sought control in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. The rail line from Hanoi to Kunming, along with another to Guangxi, allowed France to exert its influence in Southern China from its Indochina colony. The rail line has remained through the momentous political changes and wars in the years since.

But the proposed update is intriguing.

From Beijing’s perspective, the metre gauge (1.0 metre) rail line typically used in Vietnam is incompatible with its network of standard gauge (1.435 metre) lines, so the upgade will allow for direct services into Vietnam. China had already gradually completed a newer standard gauge line alongside an older narrow gauge one in southern Yunnan to the border town Hekou, across from Lao Cai. Allowing for an extension of this line into Vietnam will provide a smoother connection – which, in more than one sense, is a goal of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The rail connection was even mentioned during Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi in 2017.