The vision to link China and Europe by express freight train was transformed into a reality when the first China-Europe express freight train was launched in Chongqing on March 19, 2011, and headed to Duisberg, Germany via northwest China’s Xingiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The world’s second-largest economy, China, has since then taken great leaps to connect with another economic powerhouse, the European Union.
Replacing the ancient mode of connectivity known as the Silk Road that runs through China and Europe and other parts of Asia, the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) was launched by the Chinese President Xi Jinping almost a decade ago. It linked Chinese and European cities in order to augment trade through the railways.
One may wonder at how the unthinkable was made possible by launching the Express Freight Train which covers thousands of kilometres of distance between the two continents. But to what extent has the Sino-European rail connectivity benefitted the two sides in maximising trade? How has this trade link reinforced cultural diplomacy?
Sea trade between China and Europe takes more than three weeks but now it takes only 15 days via the express train shuttle to move back and forth.
Nearly a decade of trade connectivity via the Belt and Road Initiative has opened up economic opportunities at an exponential rate
Lessening its dependence on sea and air cargo for its trade with Europe and utilising the freight train option by China is a unique phenomenon in today’s world. In an interesting article entitled, “Linked Destinies” published in the September 21-27 issue of The Economist, writer Wei Hongchen states that, “Carrying locally produced electronic products, the [first] train covered a distance of about 11,000 km in 15 days.”
According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), “in the ensuing two years, freight trains to Europe were launched [from] more inland Chinese cities such as Chendgu in Sichuan province, Zhengzhou in Henan Province, Changsha in Hunan Province and Xi’an in Shaanxi province. A total of 62 Chinese cities and 51 European cities had launched the China-Europe Railway Express trains as of April 2019.”
Launching trade between China and Europe by freight trains had two major objectives. First, availability of European and Chinese goods to local consumers at reasonable prices and in less time as compared to the shipping trade. Second, the strengthening of cultural links between China and Europe. Furthermore, it is not only that China is promoting trade via rail but its neighbours such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia are also making use of this connectivity for promoting trade.
How express freight trains have become a bridge for cultural exchanges between China and Europe is narrated by Wei Hongchen: “Walking into the WAE office, visitors are greeted by an enormous painting on the wall, depicting a China-Europe Railway Express train whizzing by a backdrop featuring landmark structures in Wuhan, such as the ancient Yellow Crane Tower. The painting was created by a German girl named Nadine Maassen.”
The popularity of Wuhan city in fomenting trade, commercial and cultural ties with Europe is understandable. As mentioned by Wei Hongchen, “Wuhan was a historical bustling commercial hub. It was once the world’s largest tea distribution centre, with the tea trade fueling the city’s prosperity. Centuries ago, tea and other products from Wuhan were transported abroad along the ancient Silk Road, the Maritime Road and other routes. In the middle 19th century, tea from Wuhan reached St. Petersburg. Now, railways have brought Wuhan and Europe much closer.
This revolution in Sino-European trade is a lesson to those countries which still grapple with issues of poor infrastructure, incompetent bureaucracy and bad governance.
Various impediments which were faced by express freight trains travelling between Europe and China were taken care of, particularly the challenge posed by extreme weather conditions. “Sometimes the temperature in containers can rise above 50 degrees Celsius in summer and drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius during winter.” (The Economist, September 21-27, 2019) Perishable and fragile items such as food, wine and medicine had to be saved from extreme temperature by using modern technology. Therefore, “in 2016, a China-Europe Railway Express research team developed cutting-edge cold chain containers. These containers can be tracked 24 hours a day so that the entire transportation process is visible and controllable.” With the use of technology to preserve perishable and consumable items, it became possible to keep items in containers — such as French wine, German and Polish beer, Kazakhstan’s cooking and other daily consumer items, such as oranges from Hubei, to be shipped to China and European markets in good shape.
Excessive growth in Sino-Europe trade by freight trains since 2011 wouldn’t have been possible without adopting three measures. First, the professional handling of freight trains covering long distances and the management of customs and other formalities. Second, expanding freight trains and their frequency to other parts of China and not just Wuhan, and extending trade to other European cities. Third, innovation and creativity on the part of Wuhan city and its counterparts in Europe. The political will, determination and capacity of risk-taking by Chinese traders and their counterparts in Europe has expanded Sino-European freight train trade manifold.
According to China Daily of August 10, 2019, “a new China-Europe express train left Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan province, to Budapest, according to Chengdu’s transport authorities. The freight train, carrying over 30,000 parcels worth nearly 500 million yuan ($70.8 million), is expected to return within eight hours after its arrival 15 days later, the first of its kind between the two cities. The new route will benefit the export of commodities made in Sichuan to European countries and boost local foreign trade thanks to its efficiency and lower operational costs.”
According to Global Construction Review, “Most journeys are between German and Chinese cities, but there are longer journeys; the longest of all runs between Yiwu and Madrid, a 12,874 km route that holds the record for the longest in the world, ahead of the Yiwu to London branch. The impetus for the development of the rail system has come from China, which presently runs a $176 billion trade surplus with the EU. However, Europe exports almost $200 billion of goods to China a year, and there is currently a 350 percent annual increase in European goods making the return trip east by rail.”
Jonathan E Hillman, directorof the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, in his report, “The Rise of China-Europe Railways,” (published on March 6, 2018) explains the dynamics of Sino-Europe railways for boosting trade. According to him, “Just 10 years ago, regular direct freight services from China to Europe did not exist. Today, they connect roughly 35 Chinese cities with 34 European cities. China is the primary force behind these routes, and other countries have been eager to participate. Providing generous subsidies and state media promotion, China has made direct rail services a major feature of its Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], which aims to bind the world with Beijing through $1 trillion of new infrastructure, trade agreements, and coordination across countless policy areas.”
This revolution in Sino-European trade is a lesson to those countries which still grapple with issues of poor infrastructure, incompetent bureaucracy and bad governance. Since both China and Europe have maintained high standards and professionalism to run freight trains and ship millions of tonnes of goods every year, Beijing is trying to engage other countries, including Pakistan, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But, it will take several years to connect China and Pakistan by a freight railway system to transport Chinese goods to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, etc. It will be yet another wondrous feat if a rail link is established between Kashgar in China and Havelian in Pakistan, cutting through the mountains of Karakoram.
Recently, China announced connecting Nepal to its railway system. Connecting China with South Asia by freight train will be an ambitious project which can maximise trade in the region. If Chinese freight trains can travel 13,000 kilometres to reach Europe, why can a viable freight train connectivity between China and South Asia not be established? Following the example of the China-Europe freight trains, it would be beneficial to both parties if they do so professionally and keep trade out of politics.
The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 29th, 2019