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China’s 'Silk Road' Ambitions Reach London

  • Henry Ridgwell

The first-ever direct China-to-Britain freight train pulled into London last week - the latest milestone in China’s ambitions to redevelop the old "Silk Road" trade routes from Asia to Europe. The Chinese government has spoken out strongly in favor of free trade and globalization in the days following the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. He claims Beijing’s trade policies have damaged the American economy.

After 18 days and 28,000 kilometers, the freight train pulled into London on time last week.

It passed through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France, finally crossing under the English Channel. Inside the 68 containers were household items, clothes, fabrics, bags and suitcases.

“This is twice as quick as sea, so it's got an important role there," said Philippa Edmunds from the British Campaign for Better Transport. "It's much, much cleaner and cheaper than air freight. I mean it's 20 times less pollution than air freight.”

But there’s more to the train than its cargo. Analysts say the historic journey also carried with it a political message – that China is forging new trade routes and new markets. Already, 15 European cities are served by freight trains from China as part of Beijing’s "One Belt, One Road" initiative.

Jie Yu of the London School of Economics’ IDEAS analyst group says the rail expansion also is aimed at a domestic audience.

“The domestic market in China now seems to be very much stagnated," said Jie. "So the Chinese are desperately looking for new markets, and being able to absorb that excessive amount of production capacity. And obviously that freight train serves as a very good vehicle for the Chinese manufacturers, and restore the business confidence inside China.”

A worker looks at the first freight train to travel from China to Britain during a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip at at Barking Intermodal Terminal near London, Jan. 18, 2017.
A worker looks at the first freight train to travel from China to Britain during a welcoming ceremony to mark the inaugural trip at at Barking Intermodal Terminal near London, Jan. 18, 2017.


As the train arrived in Europe, another historic trip was being made, as Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

He spoke out in favor of globalization and free trade - a thinly veiled retort to U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of China’s trade policies.
Analyst Jie Yu says China spies an opportunity as a counterweight.

“History opened a new era ," said Jie. "And China has shown its willingness much more to shoulder more responsibility on the global stage and try to become a kind of responsible leadership.”

In Europe where popular opposition to globalization is running high, Xi’s words have been welcomed. So, could new U.S. trade policies drive Europe and China close together?

“Don’t forget, these two economic blocs have divisive opinions on the free market enormously, and they have been battling these free market ideas for so many years ," said Jie. "And this is not something that the EU and China could resolve overnight.”

Nevertheless, analysts say the Trump administration likely heralds a new era in global trade relations – but the outcome of this realignment is difficult to predict.

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