The first freight train from Wuhan, in China, to Lyon, in France, reached its destination Thursday, carrying a cargo of mechanical, electrical, and chemical products — goods that are generally transported between the two countries by ship.
After leaving the Wujiashan rail hub in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on April 6, the Chinese-operated train took 16 days to complete the 7,000-mile journey, passing through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Germany, before reaching France.
This unprecedented voyage is part of China's Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, which seeks to strengthen the country's place in the global market.
"Arrival of the Chinese train from Wuhan in Lyon."
According to a rail official interviewed by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, the new land route will form part of "an economic belt, along with the maritime route linking China to Europe."
The train will return to China in the next few days, loaded with French wine and produce. France has announced plans to introduce three links a week between Wuhan and Lyon in the near future.
While this particular journey is a first, freight trains have been circulating between Sichuan, in western China, and Duisburg, in western Germany, since 2014.
On its website, Chinese freight company Trans Eurasia Logistics (TEL) advertises regular rail links between 16 Chinese cities and European cities — including Barcelona, Bologna, Rotterdam, and Kotka, in Finland.
In June, a Chinese train pulled into the station in Madrid, after traveling more than 8,000 miles — the longest railway route. The train later returned to China carrying wine, olive oil, and fruit juice.
The launch of these new rail links marks China's desire to boost trade with its western, sometimes far-flung, neighbors. In March 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce launched the "Silk Road Economic Belt" initiative, as part of a major effort to open up trade routes.
Dubbed "One Belt, One Road" by officials, the initiative aims to breathe new life into old routes "drawn up more than 2,000 years ago by the hard-working and brave people of Asia and Europe." For several centuries, the legendary Silk Road linked Eastern China to the Mediterranean region; a route for caravans transporting porcelain, spices, and precious silk — the art of which was a jealously guarded secret in China.
With oil prices so low it is currently cheaper to sail around Africa than it is to pass through the Suez Canal, in Egypt, the Chinese government has said it is banking on "the spirit" of the historical Silk Road to override "complex regional and international situations" that might otherwise hamper trade.
This major has a land-based component, articulated around three separate routes into Russia, western Asia, and the Indochinese Peninsula. There is also a maritime route with ports in Burma, India, and Pakistan.
The plan also outlines a number of political, financial, and cultural measures to help foster international cooperation for an initiative that the Chinese authorities intend to be "characterized by harmony and friendship."
"It's a project that goes off in all directions," explained Alice Ekman, a research fellow and head of China research at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). "In the beginning, China announced a possible 60 partner countries — Eurasian countries. Now we're seeing that the project also includes Africa, and Beijing has also said that 'all countries across the world are welcome.'"
On the Chinese government's English language site, the initiative has been renamed "the Belt and Road initiative" — instead of "One Belt, One Road" — presumably to court more partners.
"Today, the official documents do not indicate precise outlines for the new Silk Roads, and China is being purposefully vague," Ekman said. "This allows [the country] to be more flexible and to aim big."
The Chinese government hopes that by opening new trade routes, it will also help to open up underdeveloped and isolated provinces, as well as respond to issues of overcapacity in some Chinese plants.
"In terms of the transportation infrastructure — roads, highways, airports, railways — China is more or less equipped right now," explained Ekman. "The companies inside that sector, including state-owned companies that remain central to the Chinese economy, must find new foreign markets."
Financially, the "Belt" initiative is being supported by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was created by China in 2014, and by a massive new gold fund. "China is also counting on the New Development Bank for emerging countries [formerly known as the BRICS Bank]", said Ekman.
The research fellow also noted that the Chinese government had adopted a "carefully planned communication [strategy]" to court new partners.
"China communicates differently with each country it deals with," she explained. "It claims that its initiatives complement national or European efforts — that they share the same goals. But some [potential partners], including the European Union, are skeptical."
During a tour of the Indian Ocean in spring 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled his own maritime trade initiative, called "the Cotton Road." Russia, meanwhile, is considering building a giant highway linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, going across Siberia.
"Regional rivalries notwithstanding, it won't be easy for China's institutions to implement the government's program," said Ekman. "In the current context, with the launch of a vast anti-corruption campaign, Chinese companies and local authorities are afraid to take risks, for fear of coming under scrutiny from the central government. They're not starting many new projects."
Security is also a major concern. In Pakistan, some 10,000 troops have been deployed along the route, to protect various sites along the China-Pakistan corridor.
The Chinese government has not yet announced when these new trade routes will be operational. Some observers have said the project should be launched by 2050, when the People's Republic of China will celebrate its 100-year anniversary.
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Map of rail links via WAE Logistics