China “Conquers” Europe Without Firing A Shot; Exports Reach A Whopping $380B Since 2011 Via BRI

The China-Europe Freight Train service, a cornerstone of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has transformed intercontinental trade in just over a decade.

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On July 1, 2024, Beijing launched its first train to Moscow for the year, marking the initial journey between the capitals of China and Russia in 2024, as reported by the China Railway Beijing Bureau Group Co., Ltd. Following the first trial train in March of the previous year, further improvements have been made, and the service is running at least once a month.

On May 25, China launched its 90,000th freight train from Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, to Małaszewicze, Poland, marking a significant milestone in the China-Europe freight train services under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

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According to the China State Railway Group, since its inception in 2011, the service has transported over 8.7 million containers containing goods valued at more than $380 billion.

The China-Europe freight train, often called a “steel camel caravan,” has achieved remarkable success in just 13 years. The annual value of goods transported by the service rose from $8 billion in 2016 to $56.7 billion last year, highlighting its growing importance in international trade.

Chinese officials praised this as a milestone in ensuring the stability of international industrial and supply chains, boosting high-quality joint construction under the Belt and Road Initiative, and promoting China-Europe economic and trade exchanges.

China-Europe Railway Express (CRE)

The China-Europe Railway Express, a flagship project under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was initiated in 2011. It is a network of international container rail services facilitated by the China State Railway Group connecting cities across Central Asia and Western Europe.

China sent its first freight train to Duisburg, Germany, via Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland on March 19, 2011. The return train from Duisburg to Chongqing didn’t arrive until March 2013, marking the inaugural eastbound journey.

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Following the BRI’s launch in 2014, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Duisburg accelerated the growth of the China-Europe Freight Train (CEFT). By the end of 2021, 49,000 freight trains had traveled between China and Europe, transporting 4.4 million containers.

Initially, these freight trains transported IT products like laptops and printers. Today, they carry over 50,000 varieties of goods across 53 categories, including clothing, shoes, hats, automobiles and parts, daily necessities, food, timber, furniture, chemicals, and machinery equipment. The maximum capacity of each freight train has increased from 25,000 tonnes to 30,000 tonnes.

Since 2023, the trains have also transported an increasing number of Chinese-made “tech-intensive green trio” products—lithium-ion batteries, photovoltaic products, and new energy vehicles (NEVs)—reflecting strong market demand.

The China-Europe freight trains have established a comprehensive logistics network covering the entire Eurasian continent, promoting international trade and broadening the channels for Chinese goods to reach global markets.

But it’s not just about exports. These trains are a two-way street, bringing a taste of Europe back to Chinese consumers and fostering a truly global marketplace.

Balancing Speed & Cost

Rail transport offers a balanced solution between the affordability of maritime shipping and the speed of air freight.

Rail freight trains can transport a full load of 40 x 40-foot containers per trip, carrying up to 8 million pounds of goods—equivalent to the cargo capacity of two fully loaded Boeing 747s. The cost for this transportation option ranges from USD 7,000 to USD 9,000. In comparison, sea freight costs approximately USD 6,000, while air freight is significantly more expensive at USD 32,000.

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In recent years, rail freight has emerged as a cost-effective alternative to air freight, providing faster transit times than sea freight, according to the ‘Super International Shipping’ website. Shipping cargo from China to Europe via rail freight takes between 15 to 20 days, making it significantly quicker than other methods.

Many shipping companies prefer the China-Europe Railway Express (CRE) over sea transportation due to its higher speed and cost-efficiency. According to China’s State Council Information Office, as of February 2024, the CRE has connected 120 Chinese cities with 219 European cities, facilitating reliable international trade.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the railway network remained stable, delivering 9.97 million epidemic prevention and control items—including masks and medical supplies—to Germany, Poland, Belgium, and other European countries in February 2020. Future plans include expanding the CRE through integrated sea-rail transport routes.

To date, the China-Europe freight trains have reached 223 cities in 25 European countries and over 100 cities in 11 Asian countries, creating a comprehensive service network that spans nearly the entire Eurasian continent.

China Nepal BRI
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China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

Launched in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping during official visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road, focuses on substantial investments in infrastructure. These investments span railway networks, energy pipelines, highways, and more.

The BRI is structured around six economic corridors aimed at enhancing land-based connectivity across Central Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Additionally, it extends to maritime regions encompassing Southeast and South Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Mediterranean. Estimated to cost up to $8 trillion, the BRI involves 140 countries and affects more than 65% of the world’s population.

Beyond Rails & Trade

While impressive on its own, the China-Europe freight train service isn’t just a tale of logistics and trade. It is a key piece in a much larger geopolitical puzzle—China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This trillion-dollar plan aims to reshape global trade routes, with China at the center.

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As the Belt and Road Initiative surpasses a decade, defense analysts perceive it as a means for China to wield influence over developing nations, sometimes leading to debt entrapment. With China’s economy rebounding and China-EU trade expanding, the demand for China-EU freight trains is expected to stay robust.

Not everyone is thrilled with this vision. India, in particular, views the BRI with a wary eye. Some see it as an economic opportunity, while others worry it’s a Trojan horse for Chinese influence.

In Sept 2023, Leaders from India, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy, and the European Union jointly unveiled a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that directly challenges China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to establish trade and infrastructure networks connecting Asia, Europe, and Africa.

This new India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor seeks to establish its own network of trade and infrastructure links across Asia, Europe, and Africa.

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Russia recently dispatched two coal-laden trains to India using the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). This route connects Russia to India through Iran, offering an alternative to traditional shipping lanes.

Simultaneously, India and Iran are accelerating plans to develop a new rail link between Iran’s Chabahar port and the city of Zahedan. This project aims to capitalize on Chabahar’s strategic position as a crucial entry point to the INSTC. The initiative underscores India’s efforts to enhance its connectivity and trade options in the region, potentially offering a counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As these steel caravans continue to thunder across Eurasia, they carry more than just goods – they transport competing visions for the future of global trade and influence.

  • Shubhangi Palve is a defense and aerospace journalist. Before joining the EurAsian Times, she worked for E.T. Prime. In this capacity, she focused on covering defense strategies and the defense sector from a financial perspective. She offers over 15 years of extensive experience in the media industry, spanning print, electronic, and online domains.
  • Contact the author at shubhapalve (at) gmail (dot) com.