A Chinese-financed high-speed rail project is set for a showcase trial run Friday — coinciding with this week’s ASEAN summit with Chinese Premier Li Qiang in attendance — unless a series of setbacks that have plagued the project force another delay.
Scheduled to begin commercial traffic on Oct. 1, the 141-kilometer railway will connect the capital, Jakarta, to the city of Bandung, cutting the journey from three hours to about 40 minutes. The trains will be powered by electricity with no direct carbon emissions expected during operations.
When completed, it will be the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, marking a milestone in the country's quest to accelerate infrastructure development. However, the project has been postponed several times since 2019, and there are fears of another delay.
The project, part of China's global Belt and Road Initiative, broke ground in 2016 with an initial completion date set for the second half of 2019. However, land procurement issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and ballooning costs caused repeated delays.
The most recent holdup pushed the date of the trial run from Aug. 18 to early September. PT KCIC, the consortium of Indonesian and Chinese state firms that funded the project, explained that more time was needed to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers.
Experts say the repeated setbacks reflect a lack of preparations for the project, which was a priority for Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, director of China-Indonesia studies at the Center of Economic and Law Studies, said several factors were involved.
"The first one is the feasibility study. Was done for only five months, and then the preparation was not good enough. That's why, during construction, there are so many problems, especially when it comes to land use," he said.
Further delays were caused by an accident involving construction workers and problems in securing local government permits, Rakhmat said.
"And then another reason why it has been delayed, it's because there are so many products, so many components, that need to be exported from China to Indonesia. And then, it has actually been delayed due to the COVID-19" pandemic, he said.
Rakhmat said the delays, coupled with damage to the environment, have left some Indonesian opposition members dissatisfied with the project.
"Of course, there are some politicians that have been very critical of the construction, especially the Chinese involvement in it. And many of the people have been questioning the Jokowi government, why it has been delayed," he said.
Widodo is popularly known as Jokowi.
Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations analyst at Padjadjaran University, told Reuters that any further delay "will only become ammunition for the opposition to attack."
He added that any more setbacks would taint China's reputation for being able to develop and deliver big projects in the region.
The project is also criticized for its $1.2 billion cost overrun, which has brought the total cost to $7.3 billion, higher than the $6.2 billion proposed by Japan, the other bidder on the project.
PT KCIC received a $4.55 billion loan from the government-owned China Development Bank, but the cost overrun forced the Indonesian government to use state funds to see the railway completed. In April, Indonesia sought an additional $560 million loan from the bank, Reuters reported quoting a senior minister.
At the same time, China expressed a willingness to lower the interest rate from 4% to 3.4% but did not approach the 2% lending rate proposed by the Indonesian side. Japan had offered a 0.1% interest rate in 2014.
Aleksius Jemadu, a professor of international politics at the University of Pelita Harapan, said Beijing and Jakarta should find ways to establish a mutual trust mechanism and actively resolve the issues that have emerged. But he believes it is too early to say whether the project can be judged as successful.
Rakhmat said it is unfair to say that Jokowi made a mistake choosing China for the project because it is unclear what would have happened if Japan had been selected. What is certain, he said, is that Jokowi's decision was rushed, and the final outcome may affect future cooperation between the two countries.
"This is something that I think the government needs to learn from, something that we need to be careful of for the future when it comes to partnering with China," Rakhmat said.
Rezasyah said some Indonesians are beginning to compare the quality of Chinese infrastructure with that from the European Union or Japan, potentially leading future Indonesian governments to look beyond China for major projects.
Nevertheless, some young Indonesians have high expectations for the railway.
Rizqita Cahyani Mulia, a student at President University in Indonesia, told VOA she has a parent who works in the construction field, and she thinks it is normal for construction projects to be delayed repeatedly, especially in Indonesia.
"I heard that some people don't agree with this railway and that Indonesia is in huge debt because of the construction of this railway," she said. "If they operate it, at least they could get some money to pay for the debt.
"Yes. I still trust Chinese technology/infrastructure. I believe that Chinese infrastructure technology is advanced and safe. As long as it is not more expensive than the flight ticket, I think it is still pretty worth it. [So] yes, I want to try it," she said.
Jessica Catherine Tawaluyan, another student at President University, said it would be a mistake to underestimate China's infrastructure, "especially when it comes to trains, because they are very experienced in this regard. … Hopefully this marks something incredible in our infrastructure history."