Construction of a long-awaited Thai-Chinese railway line that will link Thailand, Laos and China officially began on Thursday with a ground-breaking ceremony in the northeastern Thai province of Nakhon Ratchasima.

The first phase of the project, a 250-km (155 mile) high-speed rail line linking Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, is expected to be operational in 2021.

The full line is expected to stretch 873 km (542 miles), linking Thailand and Laos at the northeastern Thai city of Nong Khai.

It is part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure drive, which aims to build a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting China to economies in Southeast and Central Asia by land and the Middle East and Europe by sea.

But the Thailand project, which began in 2014 with formal talks, has been beset by delays, including disagreements over the design and funding as well as technical assistance.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday presided over a ceremony to begin construction of the first, 3.5-km section of the railway.

“Thailand is developing in every aspect to become the center of connectivity… and this route is to connect to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to China, India and further to other countries,” Prayuth said in a speech.

Completion of the first section is expected to take six months, according to the transport ministry.

In September, Thailand signed two contracts worth $157 million with Chinese state enterprises covering the engineering design of the project and the hiring of Chinese technical advisers.

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