A train that proclaims China’s global ambition

As Beijing pushes westwards, the Atlantic century makes way for a new Eurasian age

by: Philip Stephens

The 'One Belt, One Road' initiative is China’s route to Eurasian primacy © Bloomberg

Among this year’s under-reported events was the opening of a new rail freight route. A locomotive, pulling wagons loaded with Chinese manufactures, set out in early January from Yiwu in Zhejiang province. Some 18 days and seven countries later it arrived at a goods depot almost 7,500 miles away on the eastern edge of London. The jury is out on the economics of this latest reincarnation of the ancient silk routes. That is beside the point. The journey above all else was a statement of China’s geopolitical intent.

In truth, it took several trains to complete the trip. The freight containers had to be switched at various points to take account of different track gauges, and then again for the last stretch through the Channel tunnel. It is not clear how frequently the trains will run, although the operator says it is offering a service much faster than by sea and much cheaper than by air.

Once a month seems to be the first target. Similar routes opened a while ago to continental cities such as Hamburg and Madrid. London, though, is a prize.

The trains, following the old silk road through central Asia, Russia, Belarus and Poland into western Europe are unlikely to have a decisive effect on present patterns of trade. The important thing is the psychological impact — a network of rail links reduces the distance between Asia and Europe. And there lies the grand design of China’s Xi Jinping. The president wants to obliterate boundaries between the two continents and draw the rich nations of Europe close to China.

There is a shorthand among foreign policy types that designates the 20th as the Atlantic century. The 21st, the received wisdom continues, will belong to the Pacific. The last century saw wealth and power concentrated among the littoral states of the north Atlantic as Europe and the US reached across the ocean. But prosperity and power have travelled eastward and southwards. The phrase Pacific century seems to capture China’s rise.

Only in part. True, the People’s Liberation Army is building military bases on reclaimed islands in the South China sea to expand its maritime reach into the Western Pacific; and, yes, China could well clash with the US in these waters. But such tensions misread Beijing’s organising ambition. It is looking westwards rather than eastward.

Mr Xi’s big play is wrapped up in his “One Belt, One Road” idea — the recreation of the sea and land routes of an earlier age of globalisation. When it looks ahead China imagines an era in which the great land mass of Eurasia becomes the vital fulcrum of global power. And guess who will be the pivotal Eurasian player?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter who until his death this year was Washington’s sharpest strategic thinker, long ago grasped the significance of what he called the “axial supercontinent”. “A power that dominated Eurasia”, he wrote as far back as 1997, “would exercise decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions, western Europe and East Asia . . . What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy”.

It is easy to see why he was concerned. Eurasia — and the historic division into two continents has more to do with tradition and culture than any physical boundary — accounts for more than a third of the world’s landmass and for about 70 per cent of the global population. It is home to much of the world’s energy and other natural resources.

For some the One Belt, One Road project speaks to a jumble of different objectives — some economic, some strategic. Thus a Chinese railway through Myanmar provides a route to the sea that bypasses the pinch point of the Strait of Malacca. A new port in Pakistan provides direct access to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf. Vast infrastructure projects in central Asia and Africa are designed to mop up China’s excess industrial capacity and to secure sources of raw material. Beijing wants new investment channels to expand its presence in Europe.

Some of these enterprises are more successful than others — as witnessed by James Kynge’s reporting in the FT this week of Beijing’s stumbling attempts to export high-speed train technology. It seems it is better at running trains than building new railways in other nations.

Nor can Beijing expect to have it all its own way. At some point Moscow will tire of its place as very much the junior partner in the Sino-Russian axis. And India will not be easily pushed aside as China cuts a swath through Eurasia.

But the whole amounts to more than the sum of the parts. One Belt, One Road is China’s route to Eurasian primacy. And the gods are looking favourably on the Chinese leader. The belligerent isolationism that counts for foreign policy in President Donald Trump’s White House offers Beijing a free hand.

Brzezinski’s worry was that without a strategy to promote its own interests through balancing alliances, the US would cede Eurasia to others and, eventually, would be left a great power stranded in its own hemisphere. Such geopolitical calculation does not loom large in Mr Trump’s White House. Beijing can scarcely believe its luck. As the US retreats, China makes its presence felt. Quite suddenly, the Eurasian century has a certain ring to it.

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