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Jan 4, 2017

China-UK 'blockade buster' export train is on its way to London

China's long game in economic power plays will see it put a train load of cheap imports into a London freight yard just as Donald Trump arrives at the White House

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This freight train entering China from Russia could have started in Europe
This freight train entering China from Russia could have started in Europe

It may be coincidence, but the first freight train from China to London seems likely to arrive on or about January 20, when Donald Trump is inaugurated as the next President of the United States.

It may also be an overreach (and historically inaccurate) to see the extension of the already operational China-Europe rail bridge to the UK to be an effort to circumvent any future US led attempt to impose a maritime blockade on the PRC until it stops undercutting less efficient American manufacturers in trans Pacific and broader World trade contests.

The concept of vast but functional rail links from the Pearl River delta valley in China to the Ruhr in Imperial Germany via a sort of iron horse version of the ancient Silk Road caravan routes excited visionary minds in pre-Communist revolution Tsarist Russia before they took root in many places and societies since then.

Imperialist concepts of such shipping and railroad based geo-political domination featured large even in the late nineteenth century in what the 20th century called ‘western’ powers, and drew massive inspiration from the expansion of the great transcontinental American railroad companies.

Key parts of which were built by Chinese labourers imported to dig the critical Rocky Mountain tunnels and massive earthworks in an America where some might have lamented in their racist ignorance the ‘premature’ emancipation of its black slaves.

And so the great wheels of history grind slowly but purposefully to put China once more at the centre, and somewhat more in control than before, of what in coming decades could be a massive revolution in globally significant transport infrastructure.

The notion of trans Asian rail links going way beyond the scope of the trans Siberian system that bound together (in one sense) the Soviet Union still hasn’t come up with a totally convincing economic argument that would compete with modern long distance maritime links for the next half century.

But the gap may be narrowing, even though the opening of the Arctic Ocean to regular shipping makes sending goods from Northern Asian ports to Europe and the Atlantic seaboard of the US much faster and in theory less costly than today.

Trans Asian rail could do something shipping can’t, by knitting together manufacturing and consuming centres in the inland parts of Vietnam and adjacent Mekong delta, and deeper into China, and in central Asia states in what China sees as its ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy for economic (and thus political) integration.

It has been a strategy developed more thoroughly under outgoing PRC President Xi Jinping 习近平, who also put resources into planning a parallel shipping strategy called the 21st century maritime Silk Road 21世纪海上丝绸之路.

There are lots of hurdles ultra-long distance rail has to overcome to compete with container ships and bulk carriers. Ships get ‘taxed’ by port charges at each end of the ‘belt.’ Aircraft commerce gets ‘taxed’ by overflight airspace fees, as well as airport charges. But trains on China’s ‘one road, one belt’ to Europe and the UK, and one day, to rail connected Sumatra and Java, get ‘taxed’ by crossing multiple jurisdictions.

The trains often have to be ‘repacked’ or rearranged at intermediate points to keep the containers on the optimum path between origin and destination, and that fee has to include the upkeep of massive physical infrastructures rather than the much more ephemeral navigation systems needed by planes and ships.

Global warming and the unlocking of the Arctic seaways is a significant negative for such rail systems by opening new port to port options. But unrestrained global warming will also drown a great deal of already ‘sunk’ investments in port facilities that are vulnerable, just like many state economies, to the consequences of the liquidation of Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. (No-one in in the economic think tanks of the last century foresaw the double meaning ‘sunk’ would acquire in investments in infrastructure that assumed coastlines were immutable.)

There is a UN body that fosters the Trans-Asian Railway concept. It’s relevance, such as it is, depends on continued US participation in the United Nations.

When the goods train from China pulls into London it will be seen no doubt, as symbolic of the PRC’s determination not to be walled in by the west.  It may be interpreted as being (however paradoxically), a response to rising tensions in the South China Sea that potentially threaten open maritime commerce.  But in truth it was always going to happen as part of a grander plan that can be traced back to the Imperial visions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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