The first freight train of the Lancang-Mekong Express departs from Kunming in China on January 10, 2022, bound for a 26-hour journey to Vientiane, capital of Laos.
China Information Service | China Information Service | Getty Images
BEIJING — Over the past two years, China has announced the opening of new freight train lines, while cross-border railways have become a feature of President Xi Jinping’s meetings with regional leaders.
It’s all part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, an intricate web of infrastructure projects linking China to its trading partners.
Here is an overview of where railway lines are built across the Asian continent.
The projects include high-speed passenger trains.
In April, China’s national train ticketing app opened online reservations for a 10.5-hour train journey between Yunnan province and the capital of Laos. If all goes as planned, this road will one day connect Bangkok, the Thai capital, and Phnom Penh, the river capital of Cambodia.
Far North, China last year opened a railway bridge between the distant province of Heilongjiang and Russia. New rail links to transport coal from Mongolian mines to China are underway, according to official media.
These freight lines add to China’s relatively old rail network across Central Asia – connecting Yiwu in eastern China to London.
While it is difficult to ascertain how well all rail lines are operational, official reports offer insight into how China’s Belt and Road ambitions are materializing.
CNBC analyzed the reports to create the following schematic diagrams of railroads, built and planned, by region:
Planned and built railways in the southern region of China, based on official reports and state media.
Railways planned and built in China’s southeast region, based on official reports and state media.
Construction of railways across China’s northern border with Russia, based on official reports and state media.
Planned and built railways across China’s northern border with Mongolia, based on official reports and state media.
Construction of railways in the region west of China, based on official reports and state media.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2013 at the start of Xi’s presidency. The program is widely seen as Beijing’s effort to boost global influence through the development of rail, sea and other transportation routes from Asia to Europe and Africa.
“Separating Europe from the United States, at least to the extent possible, is an important foreign policy goal for China and deeper economic integration fostered by stronger rail links would help,” said Stephen Olson, senior researcher at the Hinrich Foundation.
Likewise, “part of China’s motivation in building rail links in ASEAN is to put China more at the heart of regional trade,” he said, referring to the 10-member bloc of ASEAN. the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Olson said that while rail can be a “game changer” for a landlocked economy like Laos, it is also the destination country’s responsibility to develop logistics and other infrastructure to fully utilize new rail lines for trade.
Beijing says trade with Belt and Road countries accounts for about a third of China’s overall imports and exports. In the first quarter, that trade grew 16.8% from a year ago – slower than the pace of 19.4% for the whole of last year, official figures show.
The real boost to trade from the rail lines is difficult to gauge, said Francoise Huang, senior economist at Allianz Trade. She pointed out that transporting goods by rail is considerably cheaper than air and faster than by road and sea.
She said her assessment of the reports indicates that railway lines are used more to transport Chinese exports to other countries, rather than imports into China.
Since 2013, construction contracts related to the Belt and Road have totaled $573 billion, according to estimates published in January by Christoph Nedopil, founding director of the Green Finance and Development Center at Fudan University in Shanghai. Including non-financial investments, that figure rises to nearly $1 trillion, according to the report.
Critics say that through the massive infrastructure project, China has forced developing countries into deep debt while benefiting Chinese companies, often state-owned entities.
“Analysis of the impact of freight lines will be inseparable from an analysis of the overall impact of closer trade relations with China,” Olson said.
“For some countries this might work better than for others. China’s economy is much larger than any ASEAN economy and this creates a leverage effect which can sometimes lead to unbalanced and unbalanced trade relations. sustainable.”
In an annual report released in March, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, highlighted progress in international railway construction. The commission also said it was aware of the risks.
“We have developed major overseas projects while protecting ourselves against the associated risks, helped companies guard against and defuse overseas investment risks, and worked faster to create a comprehensive form of services for the monitoring, assessment and early warning of risks related to projects abroad.”
China is expected to hold the third Belt and Road Forum at an undetermined date this year. Xia invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to attendstate media said.
– CNBC’s Bryn Bache contributed to this report.