Image: Shanghai Maglev – courtesy Wikipedia
Part 4 of 4
By Charles F. Moreira, Editor
To recap, China’s Belt and Road initiative is a latter day revival of the ancient Silk Road land and sea trade routes during China’s Han Dynasty period from 207 BC to 220 CE.
That ancient Silk Road connected China, Korea and Japan to the Indian sub-continent, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, the Horn of Africa and Mediterranean Europe, thus opening up political and economic relations between nations along the route, as well as cultural exchange.
Whilst mostly Silk was exported from China to countries along the route, many other goods were traded too. It also enabled the spread of religions, philosophies, and technologies along the route, and on the downside – the spread of diseases such as plague as well.
Like that ancient Silk Road, China’s Belt and Road initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, also comprises a network of land and sea routes connecting China with the Indian sub-continent, countries of the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South East Asia, hopefully enabling economic and technological development, as well as trade between nations along these later-day routes.
Instead of ox-drawn carts which plied the land routes of the ancient Silk Road, land transport along today’s New Silk Road will mostly be modern trains, especially high-speed trains.
According to strategic risk consultant, lecturer, economic researcher, global geopolitics analyst, freelance journalist and author F. William Engdahl, China has become the world’s leading maker of modern railroads and railway equipment, and it has done so as part of a long-term strategy to create a new economic space and build entirely new markets where none had existed before.
China took the initiative to study the European rail makes, as well as Germany’s network of Inter-City Express (ICE) high-speed railways. China engaged German engineering and electrical consortium Siemens to build the world’s first magnetically levitated (maglev) train, which began commercial service on 1 April 2003, travelling between the Shanghai International Convention Centre and Shanghai’s new international airport – i.e. Shanghai Pudong International Airport at between 300 and 400 km/h, covering the 30 km distance in eight minutes.
Since then, China has been working on and entirely new concept of fast rail and as of August 2015, was in negotiations with some 28 countries to build high-speed conventional rail lines.
Rather, interestingly too, Engdahl regards China as having replaced Germany as the world’s first reference point for high-speed rail, thanks or no thanks to cost overrun. Bureaucratic infighting between the small maglev lobby and the more traditional ICE high-speed lobby within the state-owned German Railway, led to the slow death of Germany’s leadership in maglev rail technology.
Engdahl had moved from New York to Germany in the mid-1980s to work as a journalist and there he had the opportunity to ride on an experimental maglev train in Elmsland north Germany and he was very impressed with the experience.
At the time, several bleeding-edge technologies were being developed in Germany with government financial backing and one of them was maglev trains.
“Concrete plans to build the first maglev link between Hamburg and Berlin after German unification died on the bureaucratic vine. The same with plans to build a maglev link between Munich city and its new international airport”, wrote Engdahl in New Eastern Outlook of 28 August 2015.
“Maglev in Germany was rendered to the dustbin as globalisation moved to pressure European economies with its ruthless logic of manufacturing outsourcing, of ‘buy cheap, sell dear’, tied to the Wall Street-fostered notion that ‘shareholder value’ is the only reason corporations should exist.
“The Wall Street world of Gordon Gekko gradually spread its poison to Germany and maglev died there. German ICE trains are widely in use and generally comfortable, but German industry is no longer the centre of transport innovation. That role has been earned by China”, added Engdahl.
China learns, designs and makes
In their bid for technological independence and self-reliance, China’s engineers carefully studied the design features of the model of Siemens maglev train they had bought for Shanghai Airport and set about to make their own improved version.
In July 2015, China’s huge railroad rolling stock manufacturer, CRRC Corp. at its Zhuzhou Institute in Hunan province announced that it had successful tested a cutting-edge permanent magnet synchronous traction maglev system that will take high-speed trains to an ultrafast 500 kilometres per hour. It uses an advanced new traction system that is lighter and more powerful than the Siemens Transrapid system or others.
Ding Rongjun, head of the institute said at the time that CRRC would begin mass production of the maglev train.
The Zhuzhou Institute had been working on perfecting their own maglev system since 2003, with plans to begin equipping trains with the new traction system by 2017 or 2018. It had been successfully tested on a subway line in Shenyang since 2011.
China builds and develops
“What is most impressive to me in my many visits to China over the past years is the extraordinary sense of doing things, of their countless building projects, something we in the West long ago had forgotten about in our post-industrial fantasy world. This drive to change their physical surroundings is emerging with impressive scale around President Xi Jinping’s highest-priority, the so-called One Belt, One Road Eurasian high-speed rail project”, wrote Engdahl.
China already had the world’s longest High-Speed Railway network with over 16,000 km (9,900 mi) of track as of December 2014, more than the rest of the world’s high speed rail tracks combined. China’s high speed rail system also includes the world’s longest line, the 2,298 km (1,428 mi) Beijing–Guangzhou High-Speed Railway.
“In short, China knows what it is doing in railways more than pretty much anybody and they are acting on that knowledge”, wrote Engdahl.
In previous articles Engdahl had discussed the huge geopolitical advances that were developing with the agreement in Moscow in May 2015 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi.
There they had agreed to integrate the development of the China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project with the newly-established Eurasian Economic Union which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
“That, by the way, was the economic union that Ukrainian democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovich decided to join over the far more paltry offer from the EU. That decision triggered a Washington-led neo-nazi coup d’etat that forced Yanukovich to flee for his life in February 2014 as Victoria Nuland and friends installed an anti-Russian cabal in Kiev to wage a war against Putin’s Russia. That was a bad decision by Ukrainian oligarchs which they must be starting to regret”, wrote Engdahl.
Earlier in 2015, Russia and China had decided to complete a 7,000 kilometre high-speed rail link from Beijing on China’s east coast to Moscow, via Kazakhstan, a journey that would take just 30 hours instead of five days, at a cost of some US$240 billion.
This rail link follows the agreement reached between China and Russia in 2014, whereby Russia’s Gazprom would provide China with natural gas in the largest energy deal in history.
“It’s pretty clear that the emerging Russia-China partnership over the past several years has become long-term and for both, highly strategic. For both great Eurasian nations their land route is a geopolitical outflanking of Washington’s domination of the seas, at the same time providing the transport arteries for emergence of a new economic centre of gravity of our world, namely, Eurasia”, wrote Engdahl.
Over the decade since 2005, China had carefully built up its railway industry with the aim to make it a leading world exporter of railway construction technology as well as the rail equipment in the spirit of ‘Made in China’.
This is similar to the path taken after the 1870’s by Germany which then built the world’s most advanced industrial economy, using a national bank, the Reichsbank, not a private central bank like the Federal Reserve to do it.
“British industry forced German imports to bear a stamp of assumed inferiority, ‘Made in Germany’. That sign soon became a hallmark of quality, not of cheapness”, wrote Engdahl.
“So today with China. The image of millions of Chinese sweating away in low-paid textile labour for cheap exports is rapidly passing as the government’s current five-year plan aims to make China an exporter of high-net-value-added industrial and technology products. Rails are at the centre of that strategy.”
“It’s in many ways the same strategy that brought Japan after the 1950’s from a war-ravaged defeated country to one of the world’s leading industrial nations in just two decades”, added Engdahl.
As a matter of interest, on 21 April 2015, a seven-car Central Japan Railway Company maglev train was tested near Mount Fuji and achieved speeds of over 600km/h for 11 seconds, thus setting a new world record compared to 590 km/h earlier.
The Japanese train uses an electrodynamic suspension system where superconducting magnets move it along its “tracks”, called guideways, without touching the ground.
Southwards to South East Asia
As part of her Belt and Road initiative, in 2014 China was involved in 348 overseas railway construction projects, more than twice the number a year before. Total contract value was three times greater than in 2013 at almost US$25 billion and annual turnover was US$7.6 billion. Since 2001, China’s exports of locomotives have grown from less than US$80 million to US$3.74 billion in 2014.
“And central to their strategy, China’s rail industry has shifted the exports from low-end products to exporting high-tech and high value-added products including Electric Multiple Units and double-decker carriages. Their exports go to more than 80 countries and regions in six continents, with the main export markets in the ASEAN countries, Argentina, Australia”, wrote Engdahl.
“Among the foreign projects China has signed is construction of a high-speed railway line from Kunming in China’s southern Yunnan Province along a 3000 km route to Singapore, passing through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia. Because of the divided colonial history of those South East Asian countries, variously with French colonial occupation in Laos, British in Singapore and Malaysia and independent Thailand skillfully maintaining its independence, the countries until now have poor or no interconnecting modern transport infrastructure.
“Beijing estimates that that one project alone will increase the GDP of China and of the involved South-Asian nations by US$375 billion. That’s vastly more than the silly Washington ‘free trade’ Trans-Pacific Partnership would bring to its region.
“China Railway Corporation says the Kunming-Singapore line will be constructed in four stages: from Kunming to Vientiane, Laos; from Vientiane to Bangkok, Thailand; Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore”, Engdahl added.
Enterprise TV had already written about more recent developments, delays and other issues related to the Belt & Road high-speed railway in Laos, Thailand and Malaysia in earlier parts of this four-part series of articles.
Onward to Kathmandu
In 2015, China’s government was also exploring the feasibility of construction of a modern rail line from Lhasa in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
The Qinghai-Tibet railway already connects the rest of China with Tibet’s capital, Lhasa and Nepal’s government had requested China to extend the railway from Lhasa to Kathmandu, according to a railway expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering cited by the China Daily.