A senior adviser to the Chinese government is calling for a proposed road and rail tunnel between mainland China and its southern island province of Hainan to be put back on the agenda, to boost the island’s economy and help Beijing gain a foothold in the South China Sea.
Wu Shicun, the head of think tank the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said a cross-sea passage project should be added to China’s current or next five-year plan – the blueprint for nation’s development – and construction and funding preparations accelerated to allow it to be built by around 2033. The 14th five-year plan, covering 2021 to 2025, was released last November.
He told the South China Morning Post a tunnel such as that proposed by his think tank could shorten the travel time to Hainan to about 10 minutes by high-speed rail. At present, the journey can take several hours by sea or air.
Hainan is separated from the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong province by the 30km-wide (19-mile) Qiongzhou Strait, which connects the Gulf of Tonkin to the island’s west to the South China Sea to its east.
Proposals and feasibility studies have come and gone since the early 1990s, with construction difficulties, high cost and environmental concerns preventing a crossing coming to fruition. The closest it came to happening was when one such project was included in the 12th five-year plan, covering 2011 to 2015, only to not materialise.
But experts say the issues facing it can now be tackled, and China’s attempts to convert the tropical island into a world-class free-trade hub and tourism destination offer new impetus.
A crossing would facilitate movement of people and cargo, attracting businesses and talent to the island, which could serve as “the front line for China to deeply integrate into the global economic landscape”, Wu said.
The ferry journey between Hainan and the mainland takes two to five hours. Travel by sea and air can be disrupted by tropical storms.
Hainan’s GDP has doubled over the past eight years and is expected to triple again in the next decade to about 1.5 trillion yuan (US$230 billion). The number of tourists visiting the island is already projected to rise from a pre-coronavirus 80 million a year to 150 million in 2030, according to the Hainan provincial government.
The Chinese Academy of Engineering said in 2019 that it had found a solution to ventilation issues in such a long underwater tunnel, one of the biggest difficulties, and made progress in addressing the construction challenges, according to Thepaper.cn.
Wu told the Post his think tank last summer discussed the possibilities with engineers and proposed a tunnel that was technically feasible and posed few problems for marine navigation. If approved, it would cost about US$12 billion and take about eight years to build, he said.
Building a crossing could also help give Beijing a stronger presence in the disputed South China Sea by providing the improved transport links to deliver materials and logistics support, according to Wu.
“It will help China to safeguard sovereignty, security and development interests,” he said.
The project would be controversial, with one concern being that an even greater influx of people and vehicles would add to the ecological strain on the island.
“There hasn’t been a substantial model that can fully calculate the exact ecological carrying capacity of Hainan,” Lin Yongxin, director of the Maritime Silk Road Research Institute, said.
“Whether the crossing project would damage Hainan’s ecological environment remains unknown.”
Zhang Yanqiang, president of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea Research Institute at Dalian Maritime University, said a crossing could boost Hainan’s economy in ways that its free-trade perks cannot.
“The upsides of Hainan as a free-trade port only cover a few areas near the coast and are inadequate to drive the whole economy of Hainan,” he said.
“The inland area is still poor and backwards, with a low flow of people. Once a tunnel is built, a significantly increased visitor flow would help drive the economy of the whole island.”