Rolling Out the New Silk Road: Railroads Undergird Beijing’s Strategy

The first train to travel from Yiwu, China to Madrid, Spain. (Credit: Xinhua)

The much-heralded arrival of the Yixinou train in Madrid last December, after traveling 8,000 miles from Yiwu, China, encapsulated the rapid expansion of China’s railway network across Eurasia and the key role that railroads are playing in Beijing’s New Silk Road strategy (Xinhua, December 9, 2014).

China’s domestic railway infrastructure development is now often cast in the light of facilitating China’s physical links with countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), also known as the “One Belt, One Road.” When three new railway lines—Lanzhou to Urumqi, Guiyang to Guangzhou and Nanning to Guangzhou—opened in late December, Xinhua said that “the completion of these railroads not only expands China’s railway track another 3,000 kilometers, but also facilitates the main blood vessels of the One Belt, One Road” (Xinhua, December 27). The Lanzhou to Urumqi line is “on the Eurasian bridge hinterland and goes through the core area of the Silk Road Economic Belt that the country is building,” and will support development of China’s western provinces, industrialization as well as connect Xinjiang with Central Asia and Europe.

A key component of China building railroads along the New Silk Road is the Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that stand to benefit considerably from their integral role in the initiative—China North Railway (CNR) and China South Railway (CSR), which are soon to merge (see China Brief, April 3). Premier Li Keqiang has championed them on his recent travels abroad as part of the government’s “going out” strategy, touting them in Thailand, Eastern Europe and Africa, once telling China South Railways employees that “wherever I go, I promote China South Railways there!” (China Youth Daily, April 7). The state-run People’s Daily wrote that the New Silk Road is “a road of cooperation, a road of peace, a road of mutual benefit and should become a paradise for Chinese multinational companies to pursue virtuous development” (People’s Daily, January 26). Another newspaper said railroads have become China’s “diplomatic calling card” and represent China’s economic transition from manufacturing to innovation (China Youth Daily, April 7). The New Silk Road has also given CSR new business opportunities in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Thailand and the Balkans (see China Brief, October 23, 2014).

China has leveraged its railroad technology to further larger economic cooperation as part of China’s outreach for the New Silk Road, especially with Russia. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at this year’s National People’s Congress, said the bilateral “win-win” relationship with Russia includes cooperation on the SREB and “promoting cooperation on building railways” (People’s Daily, March 9). Stretching the definition of the New Silk Road, People’s Daily said that “building the Moscow-Beijing pan-Eurasian high-speed rail is the leading direction of bilateral cooperation in core fields,” and this applies to the Moscow-Kazan high-speed rail, which will “create a new freight hub in the Far East” (People’s Daily, March 7; Russia Today, March 30). Chinese media have linked this cooperation to the fact that China’s northeast will be tied to Russia’s Far East through a railroad crossing Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces. This intimate relationship between the New Silk Road and Chinese railroad technology is also evident in Chinese companies building Turkey’s new rail line between Istanbul and Ankara. In its coverage, People’s Daily quoted a Turkish official voicing support for the New Silk Road and saying, “the One Belt, One Road strategy promoted by China coincidently matches up with Turkey’s Four East Railways plan” (People’s Daily, September 22, 2014).

Any military implications of China’s outstretching railroad network are very likely to be confined to China’s own territory. While China’s domestic railways can certainly facilitate troop and mobile missile movements within the country and are likely designed with some level of military strategy in mind, railroads would likely only be useful if China had the cooperation of countries along the route—in the event of a war, other countries could easily bomb rail lines along the border (see China Brief, March 25, 2011). The PLA’s interest in railroads is evident in a recent article in a military newspaper, which quoted a PLA expert as saying that Russia lost the Crimea War and Russo-Japanese War, over a century ago, due to “railway construction delays and misfortune” (China National Defense Daily, October 9, 2014). The expert added that with China’s large land mass, railroads can be a “fast and effective” means for military deployments. The cooperation necessary for external movement was true in 2007, when the People’s Liberation Army participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) “Peace Mission 2007” exercise after transporting some troops to Russia via rail, repeating this in 2010 and welcoming foreign troops via rail in 2014 (PLA Daily, July 27, 2007; Xinhua, September 22, 2010; Ministry of National Defense, July 31, 2014). Beyond being a relatively soft target, the main railway for the Silk Road Economic Belt has three different gauges of track between Yiwu and Madrid, requiring cars to be transferred each time (China Daily, July 19, 2013). This, however, has not stopped some countries from worrying about China’s railways, as Vietnam in 2010 reportedly rejected a Chinese proposal to build a rail line, in favor of a Japanese plan, due to fears that China would invade using the connecting railroad (Xilu, November 24, 2010).

Railroads also play a crucial role in the New Silk Road’s geostrategic significance. According to Shi Qiping, a Taiwanese scholar whose comments were later plagiarized by Xinhua, railroads support China’s “counter-containment” strategy (Phoenix TV, December 19; Xinhua, April 1). Describing the political “new normal” of U.S. “repression, containment and encirclement,” Shi said that by building railroads across Eurasia, China can move the economic center of gravity toward Asia, and “the United States will suddenly realize, originally we [the United States] were trying to contain you, but now you [China] are containing us.” Xinhua made these comments more explicit by saying that the MSR will allow China to “break through the first island china to the east and enter the Pacific Ocean,” “control the South China Seas to the south,” and “enter the Indian Ocean from the South China Seas through the Malacca Strait,” while the SREB is intended to break through U.S. encirclement. PLA Major General Ji Mingkui, a frequent military commentator on the New Silk Road, also touted China’s railway cooperation with Thailand as a way to limit Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia (see China Brief, February 20; China.org, December 12, 2014; China.org, December 24, 2014). Moreover, China and Russia are reportedly competing for influence in Central Asia in part over the railroad gauge to be used by those states—with China’s loans likely predicated on using China’s standard gauge (Author’s interview, April 16).

Although the main thrust has been via the SREB to Central Asia and on to Europe, the Maritime Silk Road also utilizes railroads as part of its transportation network, as the two new rail lines to Guangzhou link China’s southwest region to the ocean (Xinhua, December 27, 2014). The MSR route includes a railway from Kunming to Singapore, traversing Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia (China Military Online, February 15). Mirroring the state-centric approach that has tied railroad SOEs to the New Silk Road along the SREB, one newspaper said that all countries in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) want railroads, but many have problems securing financing, and China’s $40 billion Silk Road Fund is intended to solve this challenge—and in doing so create more opportunities throughout Asia that China no doubt will tie into its overarching strategic transportation strategy (China Military Online, February 15).

Although the Chinese government has been keen to export its railway technology since the mid-2000s, the New Silk Road provides an excellent framework to promote CNR and CSR abroad while also tying countries along the route together through physical infrastructure that will support China’s future economic development, especially in its poorer border regions.