China will start building the country's first long-distance high-speed railway, while a Chinese company has discovered a major new gas field.

Work will begin on a high-speed railway between Shanghai and Beijing this year. The new express link, estimated to cost at least $17 billion, will shorten the travel time between China's most important cities to just five hours, from the current 13 hours. Service is expected to begin in 2010.

Manmohan Parkash is a railway specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. He says China plans to build 11 express lines with speeds of up to 350 kilometers an hour across the country. The high-speed trains are part of China's plan to modernize its huge rail network.

Parkash says China's goals are, among others, to improve the connection between cities and to improve train services between the more developed east coast and the country's underdeveloped western provinces.

"They would like to have construction in the western region and they are expecting to go by 2010 to about 34,000 kilometers network in the western region," said Parkash. "And other than that they are basically saying they would also like to modernize and use new techniques to enhance their technology and equipment for railway transportation."

In other news from China, China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) says it has made a major gas discovery. The Puguang gas field in southwestern Sichuan province has recoverable reserves of about 250 billion cubic meters, making it one of China's largest.

Sinopec's target is to have an annual output of four billion cubic meters by 2008 and eight billion by 2010. The company plans to build a 1,600 kilometer pipeline connecting the gas field with Jinan city in China's eastern Shandong Province.

Malaysia's national carmaker Proton has kicked off a campaign to improve the quality of its cars and reduce defects. Proton is struggling with a reputation for producing mediocre cars with a high number of defects.

The company is also in talks with several potential foreign partners about a strategic alliance. Analysts say such an alliance is one of the ways the embattled carmaker could become competitive again.

Australia's unemployment rate dropped to a 30-year low of five percent last month. The Australian government says 27,000 new jobs were created in March.

And British American Tobacco has signed an agreement with Vietnamese state-owned producer Vinataba to make two of the company's cigarette brands in the country. Vinataba will produce 200 million packs a year, a quarter of which will be exported.