Benelux countries’ exports to China in 2020: export structure and prospects for modal shift to rail


At the end of 2020, the trade turnover between the Benelux countries and China amounted to about USD 98 billion, of which USD 26.09 billion accounted for exports to China and USD 71.86 billion - for import.

China ranks ninth in the list of export destination countries of the Netherlands and Belgium (the second place among countries outside the EU). In terms of imports of Chinese goods, China is the second trading partner of the Netherlands and the third trading partner of Belgium.

In 2020, China became the main trading partner of the European Union. This fact reflects the increased importance of trade and economic ties between partners, which also affects individual EU countries. The Benelux countries, which include Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, are the most densely populated part of Europe, are known for their developed industry, high level of urbanization, and high-quality transport infrastructure. It was in the Benelux countries that integration processes began after the First World War, which largely paved the way for European integration.

The Benelux Political, Economic and Customs Union unites economies with a combined population of almost 30 million people and GDP of USD 1.7 trillion. As for the mutual trade of the Benelux countries with China, it is characterized by a structural imbalance of flows. The Benelux countries have a negative balance in trade with China in the amount of USD 45.784 billion. This fact makes it especially important to study ways to increase countries’ exports to China, especially from the perspective of a modal shift in favour of rail transport.

Despite the presence of large ports, such as Rotterdam and Ghent, the continental method of delivering goods to China by rail is becoming increasingly popular, especially given the current price situation on the market. In April 2021, the index of continental rail transit traffic in the direction of China-Europe-China (ERAI) remained stable, thereby anchoring at USD 2,729 per FEU, while the WCI Drewry maritime transport index reached another peak of USD 5,472 per FEU.

The high quality of the railway infrastructure in the Benelux countries is also important. According to the 2017 BCG Railway Efficiency Index, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium were included in Tier 2 of EU countries for railway efficiency with ratings from 4.6 to 5.3.

This review examines in detail the bilateral trade of the Benelux countries with China, especially exports to China, as well as the current range of goods transported by rail, and categories of goods that are potentially promising in terms of switching to the railway.

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