In its efforts to boost export revenues and strengthen connectivity with Europe, China announced the launch of a freight train to London that will traverse over 12,000 kilometres across 18 days. According to reports, the train has already departed from Yiwu, a city that thrives on commodity trade, in central Zhejiang province and will make its way through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France to arrive in London. China Daily reports that the service will be operated by Yiwu Timex Industrial Investment Co that has already been running trains to Madrid in Spain. Rail freight is said to be half the cost of air freight and half the time of sea freight.
While China is already operating train services to several cities in Europe, London is the most recent one. China is one of Britain’s largest trading partners and considered one of the top destinations for British goods. Chinese outward investment to Britain has also doubled in the last few years.
While China has been constantly searching for newer methods to improve flagging growth, the introduction of the train to London that will hurtle on ancient Silk Road trade routes is evidence that the Chinese are serious about the proposed ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ A project that has the strong backing of Chinese President Xi Jinping, BRI is an effort to improve trade relations between countries in Europe, Africa and Asia and reopen channels of communication that were snuffed out over the past decades. In addition to economic trade, a prominent feature of the ancient Silk Road routes was cultural trade and the exchange of cultural cooperation between countries that lay in the region.
China estimates that it will gain heavily from opening the ancient trade routes which will in turn boost regional cooperation and better relations between countries that lie along the Silk Road. The western Xinjiang province, a key trade and logistics hub in China, is likely to be benefited the most while smaller cities like Lanzhou and Xining will also open up. Strengthening railway infrastructure through much of mainland China and outwards into Russia is also a priority of the project.
In an action plan on the initiative, the Chinese administration had said, “On the basis of respecting each other’s sovereignty and security concerns, countries along the Belt and Road should improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans and technical standard systems, jointly push forward the construction of international trunk passageways, and form an infrastructure network connecting all subregions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe and Africa step by step.”
With Chinese economic growth coming down to 6.9 per cent in 2015 (the slowest in 25 years), there is increasing alarm in the Asian powerhouse to step up exports and build better relations with Europe. Introduction of new freight services to Europe certainly looks like a step in that direction.