During his swing through Europe last week, China’s President Xi Jinping had time to stop at Duisburg, a major inland port and industrial hub in Germany. Xi was there to receive a train full of goods that had left Chongqing in southwestern China a fortnight earlier. The train travelled nearly 11,000 km through Central Asia, Russia and eastern Europe to Germany on what is called the “Yuxinou” rail line that was established in 2011 by a group of Chinese companies. Travelling by the traditional sea route through the Indian Ocean, the containers would have taken three more weeks to reach Germany.
The Yuxinou railway is the world’s second longest rail link, 2,000 km shorter than the one that connects Germany with Shanghai.
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The Yuxinou rail is a big boost to China’s emerging industrial zones in landlocked southwestern regions of the country that are too far from Shanghai.
Xi’s presence at Duisburg helped showcase the president’s ambitious strategy of reviving the historic Silk Road that connected ancient China with Mediterranean Europe. Over the last one year, Xi has unveiled a plan to build a new Silk Road industrial belt between China and Central Asia, approved the development of a trans-Karakoram corridor through Pakistan, proposed transport links with Myanmar, Bangladesh and India, and called for a maritime silk route connecting the littorals of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Beijing is also pushing for highspeed railway lines between China and Southeast Asia and building new rail corridors in East and Central Africa.
Xi’s vigorous rail diplomacy brings to mind the expansive railroad construction by the European great powers in Asia and Africa during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Railways then were about integrating far-flung colonial frontiers, projecting military power, and gaining access to natural resources and markets. If building railways has long disappeared as a critical feature of great-power strategies, Xi has put it right back at the very centre of China’s grand strategy in the 21st century.
Xi’s plans to build new “Iron Silk Roads” traversing the length and breadth of Africa, Eurasia and Southeast Asia are built on the foundation of a dramatic expansion of China’s national railway system over the last three decades. China’s rail network was at 27,000 km in 1949; it is now at more than 110,000 km. Last year, it had plans to invest more than $100 billion in railways. After initial imports of highspeed rail technologies, China has become a leader in the domain and is offering to build fast train networks in America and Europe.
Railways have been at the very heart of modern Chinese nationalism. For Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic in early 20th century, the railways were about modernisation, industrialisation and, above all, national unification. Inspired by America’s transcontinental railway system, Sun sought to replicate it in China. Looking way ahead of his time, Sun dreamt of connecting China’s rail networks with those of Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa. A century later, Sun’s communist successors are close to realising that vision.
If China has quadrupled its rail network since 1949, India has added barely 11,000 km to the rail network of nearly 54,000 km it had inherited from the British Raj. India has also struggled to integrate its frontier regions, like Kashmir and the Northeast into the national railway grid.
Thanks to Partition and troubled relations with the neighbours, the Raj-era rail links to Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh have steadily eroded. Successive governments in New Delhi have been wilful in their neglect of railways and the political class has ruthlessly exploited the existing system rather than modernising and expanding it.
The rest of the world, especially Japan and China, has been eager to assist in the transformation of India’s railway system. Progress on the Japan-supported Delhi-Mumbai Freight Corridor remains glacial and Delhi remains ambivalent on working with China to build a highspeed railway system in India.
Many of India’s emerging challenges — including the creation of large numbers of manufacturing jobs, integration of remote areas, energy efficiency, urban renewal and climate change — all depend on a massive investment in railways. But a strategic vision for the Indian Railways and the political will to pursue it have remained elusive. The Congress party has made some desultory references to railways in its election manifesto. The BJP’s version may not be very different.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.