New Silk Road Update


Earlier this year the first direct freight train from China to the UK arrived at a depot in Barking, east London, carrying containers loaded with consumer goods. Named East Wind, it took 16 days to travel 7,500 miles across eight countries, halving the time it would have taken by sea. A few months later the train made its first return journey, delivering Scotch whisky, pharmaceuticals and baby products to the gargantuan wholesale markets of Yiwu, on China’s east coast. Last year 1,702 freight trains from China arrived in Europe, double the total in 2015, and more services are being added.

The train is named after some famous words of Mao Zedong. “Either the east wind prevails over the west wind or the west wind prevails over the east wind,” Mao declared in 1957. Sixty years on, China’s current leaders are doing their best to ensure the east wind prevails. The trains trundling their way across Eurasia are part of their attempt to build a new Silk Road, inspired by the ancient caravan routes that once crisscrossed the remote desert and steppe of central Asia. They are motivated today by the quest for economic power and national glory. By building and financing highways, railways and ports, China’s leaders literally want all roads to lead to Beijing. Key pieces of the new Silk Road, such as the overland freight routes from China to Europe, are already in place.

Direct investment along the road was $30bn in 2015-16, according to Beijing’s records, while Chinese firms signed construction contracts worth $189bn and earned $145bn in 60-odd countries. But there are doubts over its security and commercial feasibility. Pakistan has reportedly deployed 14,500 security personnel to ensure the safety of some 7,000 Chinese nationals working on the economic corridor. The danger was evident in May, when two Chinese language teachers were kidnapped and killed by armed men in Quetta, a remote but important section of the corridor. Freight trains from China to Europe may not prove profitable, however much time they save. Countries with a history of enmity with China, such as Vietnam and India, fear the strategic implications of China’s expanding tentacles. New Delhi has condemned China’s port-building in the Indian Ocean, especially in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as a platform for military expansionism – a “string of pearls” around the neck of Mother India. This summer’s military standoff with China along the contested border in the Himalayas has only added to India’s concerns.

China has already moved to fix things in that dispute.

Leave a Reply