The year 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a transcontinental connectivity project launched by China in 2013 to foster infrastructure development and trade growth, plus other activities for promoting international cooperation, such as cultural exchange. However, Western media coverage generally portrays the BRI as a Chinese-government-led strategy to project geopolitical influence, even with the intention of gaining advantage in developing infrastructure projects via so-called «debt-trap» diplomacy. As this narrative hang on very sketchy evidence, academic research on the BRI as a geopolitical campaign overlooks the extensive geo-economic structure of connectivity shaped by the BRI’s first decade.
Against the prevailing narrative of the BRI as a top-down strategy to spread China’s geopolitical influence, there is the BRI’s impact through its first decade as emanating «from the middle out and bottom up» via transport-enabled corridors traversing a large number of regions within and across national territories.
The BRI corridors cover a large mix of developing countries and their cities with their diverse regional hinterlands, and thus contain less spatial coherence than older urban corridors in developed countries. The BRI corridors also encompass a larger number of smaller and marginal places featuring greater uneven geographical development. In addition, the BRI corridors cross a good number of international borders, which act as generic geographical barriers for the transport of traded goods.
Given the BRI’s recency, It is quite clear that the BRI has directly shaped six main economic corridors extending from different points or parts inside China out into its neighbouring Asian territories to reach Europe and the Middle East (The New Eurasian Land Bridge Corridor, The China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, The China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor, The China-Indochina Peninsular Corridor, The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor and The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor)
The BRI’s first decade is temporally almost coterminous with the China-Europe Freight Train (CEFT), which made its maiden journey from Chongqing to Duisburg in 2011. If that inaugural run portended trade and logistical connectivity embodied by the BRI, the CEFT has exceeded its little-recognised potential for becoming a transcontinental transport network spanning Eurasia. From one single route to a handful of routes and about 80 trains, with only one train from Europe back to China by 2013, the CEFT grew rapidly over the ensuing decade. The number of CEFTs reached 16,000 in 2022, with a cumulative number of 73,000 trains since 2011. These trains run on 82 routes between over 100 Chinese cities and 216 cities across 25 European countries and a number of Central, East, West and Southeast Asian countries bordering or near China. They carried 6.9 million containers with cargo worth over $400 billion and covering more than 50,000 types of goods by July 2023.
The CEFT has not been all smooth. The hurdles include the pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, occasional traffic congestion at a small number of crucial border crossings like Małaszewicze, Poland, and lagging logistical infrastructure at a few hubs along some routes to support efficient train crossings. The most disruptive challenge emerged when the war in Ukraine broke out. The West-imposed sanctions on Russia, including the Russian railways, raised risks that led some China-based European and US manufacturers to suspend shipping by the CEFT.
Earlier on, during the past decade, the China-Central Asia freight train mostly ran from China to Europe and back through Kazakhstan, with a relatively small number of trains terminating in Kazakhstan’s commercial centre and former capital of Almaty, located 350 km from the China-Kazakhstan border. More recently, the China-Central Asia freight train has broadened across Central Asia in two ways. First, it has expanded rail connections beyond Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The second expansion has involved intermodal shipping from more Chinese cities along additional routes and border crossings. In July 2023, the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou launched the intermodal «China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan» service from the Great Bay Area to Tashkent via Kyrgyzstan.
As the China-Central Asia freight train broadens China’s logistical connections to the west, another new freight railway line along the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor has created rapidly growing shipping ties between China and Laos, and Southeast Asia more broadly. In the period 1 January-13 April 2023, the number of freight trains reached 1,130, averaging 11 trains a day, up 122 per cent over the same period of 2022. The freight carried amounted to 1.18 million tons. By 3 June 2023, 18 months after the corridor went into operation, its shipped cargo surpassed 12 million tons.
As more freight trains run between China and Europe, Central Asia, and Laos with extensions to Southeast Asia, the economic and logistics corridors and sub-corridors linking them have become connected into a new land-sea corridor (NLSC) through Western China that ties cargo flows across multiple domestic and international boundaries. In the first half of 2023, the NLSC carried 424,000 containers, 10.5 per cent more than the first six moth of 2022.
By connecting over 200 cities across Eurasia and beyond that otherwise would not be linked in this manner, this corridorisation has unleashed large trade and cargo flows among more parties and places, diverting some from the slower, albeit lower-cost, maritime shipping routes.