BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's cabinet on Tuesday approved construction of the first phase of a $5.5-billion railway project to link the industrial eastern seaboard with southern China through landlocked Laos, as part of a regional infrastructure drive by Beijing.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads the Thai ruling junta, made use of an executive order last month to pave the way for the project, which has been beset by delays, including negotiations on loan terms.
The first phase encompasses six railway stations on a 250-km (155-mile) high-speed line linking the Thai capital of Bangkok and the northeastern province of Nakorn Ratchasima.
"This project is part of the development of a regional transport network, in particular China's 'One Belt One Road' initiative that will link Europe, Asia and Southeast Asia together," Korbsak Pootrakool, vice-minister at the Prime Minister's Office, told reporters.
The link forms part of Beijing's regional infrastructure drive to connect Chinese cities with Southeast Asia, including Thailand's industrial zones and its eastern deep sea port.
Some analysts see the project as a centerpiece of China-Thailand relations which appear to have deepened following a 2014 coup by the Thai army.
Thailand's government has said Thai firms will be responsible for construction while China will be responsible for the railway technology, signal systems and technical training.
"The project will use Thai materials but Chinese technology will be used in the construction," Prayuth said.
"We will send people to learn this so that we can operate the rail system ourselves in the future."
Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez