Mongolia to pitch railway projects to China-backed AIIB - govt adviser

ULAANBAATAR, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Mongolia will pitch a number of railway projects to the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an adviser to the government told Reuters, as the crisis-hit nation tries to attract investment and boost trade.

The landlocked country, wedged between China and Russia, is mired in debt following a slump in commodity prices, a precipitous drop in foreign investment and a rapidly declining currency, forcing the government to hike interest rates and slash spending.

It sits on vast, untapped mineral wealth but inadequate transportation infrastructure has held back development, with several proposed railway projects to ship copper, coal and gold to China long out of reach because of prohibitive costs and arguments over security.

But China’s “One Belt One Road” project, along with another initiative to create an “economic corridor” connecting it to Mongolia and Russia, has provided opportunities for Mongolia to kickstart new projects, including the expansion of the Trans-Mongolian railway and construction of a new route going east, said Yondon Manlaibayar, an adviser to Mongolia’s Ministry of Roads and Transportation Development.

Manlaibayar said Mongolia plans over the next four years to bolster railway capacity and build new routes that will eventually connect it to a trading route spanning from China to Europe.

“It will go forward,” Manlaibayar told Reuters. “We’ve been a driving force for the economic corridor,” he said.

The corridor agreement signed by Mongolia, China and Russia in June committed the countries to upgrading regional rail transport by modernising existing capacity and building new routes.

Mongolia wants to find financing to build 550 km (342 miles) of new railways, and plans to expand existing routes.

Manlaibayar didn’t say how much Mongolia would seek to borrow to finance the projects, but said preliminary discussions have already been held with the AIIB. A spokesman for the AIIB declined to comment when contacted by Reuters on Tuesday.

The plans include the Northern Railway project led by Australian coal miner Aspire Mining. The China Development Bank has already expressed interest in providing three-quarters of the financing needed for the project.

Also on Mongolia’s list will be a rail line linking its Tavan Tolgoi coal mine to the Chinese border. Mongolia has already invested $200 million, Manlaibayar said, but the project needs another $800 million.

The Tavan Tolgoi railway project is one of five major infrastructure projects flagged as priorities by the finance ministry last week as the country tries to dig itself out of an economic crisis.

Five years ago, foreign investment helped drive Mongolian growth into double digits, but capital inflows have been on the decline since 2012 because of disputes with miners and a slump in commodity prices brought about partly by slowing Chinese growth.

The government has also identified Rio Tinto’s underground expansion of the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine and the Gatsuurt gold mine owned by Canada’s Centerra Gold as development priorities.

Manlaibayar said he is seeking approval from the government to launch a road show to get other institutional investors involved in the railway projects.

“We’ll present one-by-one because it’s difficult getting all these investors in one room,” Manlaibayar said. (Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in BEIJING; Editing by David Stanway and Kim Coghill)