The downsizing of HS2 showcases the dramatic failures of Britain's China policy
High Speed 2, or commonly referred to as HS2, is the most controversial, long-running and expensive high-speed rail project in British history. For the country that invented the railway, and imposed it on swathes of the world as an enabler of colonialism, the HS2 project, only initially designed to connect the UK's largest cities of London and Birmingham (only two hours or so apart), has become a political disaster with a cost now estimated at over 71 billion pounds (US$86 billion).
The project was of course meant to be more ambitious, reaching northward to Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and even Scotland, but as the costs for this project have ballooned, and the timeline for construction growing ever more distant, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now seeking to scrap the northern link and focus on the bare essential London-Birmingham route. This has produced a political backlash. It might be worth noting that Britain's "High Speed One," the Eurostar route from London to Paris, opened all the way back in 2003.
Britain is in the slow lane when it comes to high-speed rail. In the 20+ years Britain has taken to create one and a half (partially built) high-speed tail lines, China has comprehensively built a high-speed railway network amassing the entire country spanning over 20,000km, the largest the world has ever seen. Britain of course still holds that its political and economic system is vastly superior to China's, and wants to frame Beijing as a competitor on international infrastructure financing and construction, but with "successes" like these, is there really any competition to be had? As Victor Gao notably told the BBC's Andrew Marr the other week.
Three years ago or so, a government leak to the press stated that ex-PM Boris Johnson wanted to have China Railway Corp build the UK's HS2 link. Just months later, he U-turned his foreign policy following pressure to take a harder line against Beijing, and the "golden age" of UK-China relations was over accordingly. Gone were the days of attempting to seek closer ties between the two countries, and in came the days of hostility, grandstanding, paranoia and subordination to American strategic goals. This imposed many costs on Britain as they willingly forfeited lucrative projects and investments at their own expense to appease Washington DC.
Because of this, the HS2 proposal was history. Had the UK proceeded with it, things would have been a lot different. For starters, it would have been overwhelmingly cheaper, although one must take into consideration the higher costs of construction in Britain (with everything becoming more expensive in the country right now). China Railway Corp as the contractor would have been cheaper and almost certainly would not have reached the heights of 71 billion pounds, a great deal of that figure seemingly stemming from the project's mismanagement, bureaucracy and delays.
China on the other hand gets things done, and as such the construction time providing approval, planning and preparations went smoothly would have also been significantly shorter. Likewise, there would have been no need to consider scrapping the Northern Portion. The time limit from London to Newcastle Upon Tyne via normal railway is just three hours, that is barely the distance from Beijing to Shandong via high-speed rail times, making a vivid comparison of Britain's small island landmass to the span of China.
Its infrastructure achievements are a marvel, and once upon a time Britain's were too. This was a country after all which led the world, it was the first and inaugural industrial superpower which exported a revolution which has transformed humanity from agricultural societies into modernity.
But now, Britain is a joke, a bad one. That's because its leadership is incompetent, small-minded and has created an economic system which has penalized ordinary people, crippled the country's growth and future prospects and made foreign policy decisions premised on ideology than empirical worth.
The decision to follow the US on China is a chronic mistake which has blocked the UK from one of the world's largest and most prospective markets, all while simultaneously having cut ties with Europe too, and what for that matter do they have to show for it? A few flimsy memorandums of understanding with US states which account for nothing.
And thus in conclusion, HS2 has become a perfect symbol of these domestic and foreign policy failures. The UK is retreating on its commitments to build modern infrastructure, critical to its own economic growth. It does not bode well for the country, yet had the China option not been thrown on the sacrificial altar, none of this would have happened.
(The author, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, is an English analyst on international relations. The views are his own.)