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China proposes railway through Laos

OUDOM XAI, Laos — Wang Quan, the new Chinese owner of a hotel in this farm town in the tropical mountains of northern Laos, is hoping that the first of 20,000 Chinese workers will arrive soon to start construction on a new railroad.

The Chinese-financed railway is to snake its way through dozens of tunnels and bridges, eventually linking southern China to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and then on to the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar, significantly expanding China’s already enormous trade with Southeast Asia.

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Wang may have to wait a little longer to make his fortune from all the Chinese expected to descend on this obscure corner of Laos about 50 miles from the nearest border with China. But even though the project has run into some serious objections from international development organizations, most specialists expect it to go ahead anyway. That is because China considers it vital to its strategy of pulling Southeast Asia closely into its orbit and providing Beijing with another route to transport oil from the Middle East.

‘‘China wants a fast-speed rail — Kunming to Vientiane,’’ George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, said in a recent speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Club in Bangkok.

But China is not particularly interested in sharing much of the wealth the railroad would generate. Most of the benefits, critics say, would flow to China, while most of the costs would be borne by the host nation. The price tag of the $7 billion, 260-mile rail project, which Laos will borrow from China, is nearly equal to the tiny $8 billion in annual economic activity in Laos, which lacks even a rudimentary railroad

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