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Southeast Asian has its first high-speed railway — in Indonesia

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The countries of Southeast Asia, when combined, make up the world's fifth-largest economy and one of the world's fastest-growing consumer markets. They would grow faster but are held back by a lack of infrastructure. Now, finally, the region has its first high-speed railway in Indonesia. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us along on a ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Good afternoon, dear passengers.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The new rail line opened last October, connecting the nation's capital, Jakarta, with Bandung, capital of West Java province. It travels at a speed of 217 miles per hour, and it cuts train travel time from more than 3 hours to 40 minutes. Sixteen-year-old Bagus Adidarma takes the train from his home in Jakarta to his school in Bandung.

BAGUS ADIDARMA: I think it's very cool having the first-ever high-speed train in Southeast Asia. It's cool now that I can easily go back from Bandung to Jakarta, where I study and I live.

KUHN: By contrast, getting around Jakarta, he says, is no simple matter.

BAGUS: If you want to ride a car, it causes big traffic jams. And if you want to ride a motorcycle, it's hot, and you can't avoid the rain.

KUHN: The sleek bullet trains look just like the ones in China. And, in fact, that's where they're made. The Jakarta-Bandung Railway is a signature project in China's Belt and Road Strategy to build more than a trillion dollars' worth of infrastructure around the world. The U.S. government has criticized it as a strategy to mire developing countries in debt in order to exploit them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: At the Jakarta end of the line, the railway's general manager for communications, Emir Monti, explains that about 100 Chinese workers operate and maintain the line, and they're gradually training Indonesians to take over from them.

EMIR MONTI: (Through interpreter) Some people in Indonesia know about the Belt and Road, but not many people link it with the train because this service connects Jakarta with Bandung and not with cities in China.

KUHN: Monti says Indonesia plans to expand the high-speed rail network to other cities on the main island of Java, but one of the biggest criticisms of the project is that it's an unnecessary luxury when many of the islands outside Java don't even have slow trains. Economist Bima Yudhishthira notes that the Jakarta-Bandung line was completed more than four years late and more than a billion dollars over budget.

BHIMA YUDHISTIRA: Since the beginning, we just wondering, is it really needed for Indonesian people? Where's the money come from, and how are we going to pay back the debt from the Chinese?

KUHN: But while Indonesians may not be completely satisfied with all the terms of the railway deal...

AARON CONNELLY: They don't have a whole lot of other options or a whole lot of alternative partners, especially for this kind of really big marquee investment.

KUHN: Aaron Connelly is a Singapore-based expert on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He notes that Indonesia picked China to build the railway instead of Japan because China offered to do it faster and with fewer conditions. He notes that one country is notably absent from the competition.

CONNELLY: America is not going to invest in high-speed trains in Indonesia mostly because the investment environment in Indonesia is so poor, but also just because the U.S. doesn't have big development policy banks that are able to finance this kind of thing. But China has really, I think, derived some reputational benefits from this project.

KUHN: Outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo's popularity has also gotten a boost from his perceived successes in building infrastructure. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is poised to succeed Widodo in October, has promised to continue his policies.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "THE SUMMERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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