Train Diplomacy: Revisit the Efforts Made by Two Big Giants of Asia in Indonesia

Japan has long been seen as the leading Asian country in train technology and transportation systems. But with the rise of China and its Belt and Road Initiative, Japan's long-standing leadership began to be threatened.

As governments race to build new rail infrastructures to reintroduce this environmentally sustainable transportation feature to the public, Japan and China at the same time are also competing to expand their influence and leadership in this transportation sector. These two big giants of Asia are already well-known for their technological superiority in railway infrastructure and transportation systems. Japan itself has been long known for its sophisticated railway technology like the Shinkansen and Maglev. In contrast, China is known for its rapid development of its high-speed train since 2008 and for having the largest network of high-speed rail in the world. These two countries are also in the race to build new railway infrastructure in many Southeast Asian Countries such as Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, and so on. This article thus will try to examine how these two giants influence the government of Indonesia regarding the development of railway infrastructure which I named “train diplomacy” as well as discover the reasons why these two giants do so.

The Old Actor: Japan and Its Efforts

Japan’s diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia are always based on a framework of “economic diplomacy”. Since the 1960s, Japan has given Southeast Asian countries economic assistance as well as trying to prevent Chinese communists from expanding their influence in Southeast Asia. Japan’s “economic diplomacy” itself follows the Fukuda Doctrine which stated that Japan would build a mutual trust partnership with Southeast Asia as an equal partner (Tsunekawa et al., 2009).

Following the “train diplomacy” that I stated before, Japan’s “train diplomacy” mainly consists of the export of used railway cars and partnerships in building new railway infrastructure. For the former, since 2000, Indonesia has received many second-hand railcars from Japan. From 2013 to 2020 alone, for example, JR East delivered more than 800 second-hand railcars for use in the Greater Jakarta commuter railway (Yamamura, 2022). For the latter, I will bring the case of Jakarta MRT construction. After the completion of Phase 1 of the Jakarta MRT, Japan with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) along with Jakarta’s Government are now working together to complete Phase 2 and on the progress of starting Phase 3. The first phase of phase 3 alone will cost about 140.69 billion yen with loans from Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) which has a 0.3 percent interest rate and a period of repayment of 40 years. This partnership agreement which falls under the Special Terms for Economic Partnership (STEP) also stated that Japan will carry out necessary technology transfer to the local producers which will benefit Indonesia (The Jakarta Post, 2024).

The New Emerging Player: China and its Belt and Road Initiative

Although China is relatively new to the global market of trains, its effort in expanding its railway technology and capabilities couldn’t be ignored. One of the most remarkable achievements of the Chinese railways is its rapid growth of high-speed rail. When the 21st century rolled around, China did not have a single mere of high-speed railway lines. Nowadays, it’s a completely different story. Since its inception in 2008, China now has more than 37,900 kilometers of high-speed railway lines and aims to complete another 32,000 kilometers by the end of 2035. For China and Xi Jin Ping, the high-speed railway is the symbol of China’s economic power, as what have shown by Japan by its Shinkansen in the 1960s.

Not only domestically, China is also soaring to expand its capabilities in building new railway infrastructure internationally. Under the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s effort to expand its influence can be seen in the completion of the Laos-China Railway, a 5.3 billion US-dollar project connecting Southern China to Vientiane. This railway line not only transports passengers within Laos but also goods from China to Laos and vice versa (Jones, 2022). Other Chinese railway projects in Southeast Asia that fall under the BRI scheme are the Thailand high-speed railway project and the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project, the latter one which will be explained further below.

The Battleground: Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail

When two big giants meet, one is bound to fall. This may aptly illustrate the competition between Japan and China in expanding the influence of their railway technology capabilities, especially in Indonesia. Since it was first proposed in 2008, Japan has already shown its interest in assisting Indonesia’s plan to build the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia. But, as the new emerging power in Asia, China did not remain calm. In 2015, Indonesia held the bid for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project with two contenders following, Japan and China (Sihite & Mega, 2015). Japan came up with the proposal to build the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway with a total cost of 4.5 billion USD, while China came up with a total cost of 5.2 billion USD.

Although China’s proposal was more expensive than Japan’s proposal, Indonesia unhesitatingly accepted the Chinese proposal. This is because China stated that China would be the one who provided the entire amount of funding as well as faster completion time, while Japan stated that they would only provide around 75% of total the funding, with the rest falling under Indonesia’s responsibility. What differs the most from the two proposals is that China guarantees that the project will not require any support from the government budget, something that Japan failed to deliver. This choice then sparks outrage among the Japanese officials. The Japanese Cabinet Secretary, Suga Yoshihide, stated that Indonesia’s decision to pick China over Japan is “extremely regrettable” and “difficult to understand” (Harner, 2015).

This decision is also likely to affect Japan’s subsequent decision to assist Indonesia in expanding its high-speed rail network. As Indonesia plans to extend the railway line to Surabaya, Japan has shown its reluctance to participate in bidding for the project. The Japanese Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs, Noriuki Shitaka, stated that mixing Chinese and Japanese technology in Indonesia’s high-speed railway project would only complicate the project. Shitaka also stated that it would damage the “brand” of Japan as they don’t have any knowledge of Chinese technology used in Indonesia’s high-speed railway (Ghifari, 2023). With the Japanese reluctance to contribute to the project, I would only assume that China will continue to assist Indonesia in expanding its high-speed rail network, any may affect further Indonesia’s relation with Japan in regards to the “train diplomacy”.

The Neorealism of “Train Diplomacy”

When we talk about economic power and the influence of a state, we will then intersect with the Neorealism Theory of International Relations. For neorealism, power is not only about the military but also any material capabilities that the state could possess as the means to survive in an anarchic world, including economic and technological capabilities (Farnillah & Paksi, 2023). This could then explain why Japan and China are vying to help governments that want to build new rail infrastructure in their respective countries. Japan as the long-standing leader of railway technology in Asia wants to maintain its influence in the continent. As a country that has proven technology in the railway sector, Japan has the upper hand in providing new and reliable railway infrastructure to many countries on the continent. China, on the other hand, is a nascent actor in the established realm of the railway technology sector. With the need to compete with the bigger players such as Japan and to curb the influence of Japan, China needs to work in another way around to prove itself as one of the superpowers in railway technology such as by offering a more lucrative proposal, and this has proven successful, especially in the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project. With this win, China has begun to grow its influence and show the world that China has the new and proven railway technology to compete with the well-established player, like Japan.


These two big giants of Asia are now racing to beat each other, and the railway sector is now one of the wet fields where these two giants compete. With the need by governments to reintroduce trains as a sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation system, Japan and China will expand their influence in the form of assisting other governments that want to build a new railway infrastructure. This kind of influence that falls under the umbrella of “train diplomacy” will certainly reshape how the continent works and prove who is the strongest of them all. Whether China will beat Japan shortly is a question for another day. But the current political and economic situation certainly gives the way for these two big giants to compete against each other.

Mas Arsyarrahman Setiawan
Mas Arsyarrahman Setiawan
Mas Arsyarrahman Setiawan is an undergraduate International Relations student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. He has a strong desire in the global political economy and public transportation issues. As a young man who's willing to learn something new, he always opens his mind to many new perspectives as well as expresses his own perspective.