China, already at the centre of world trade, plans to spend billions of euro to revive intercontinental land routes and develop maritime links to expand commerce and give it more weight in a freight system dominated by European shipping lines.
President Xi Jinping set out his vision during a September 2013 visit to Kazakhstan and this week announced an initial €32bn for a “Silk Road fund” to invest in infrastructure and industrial and financial cooperation, aiming to “break the connectivity bottleneck” in Asia.
The modern-day Silk Road starts at a railway station encircled by container depots in the village of Tuanjie (which means “solidarity”) in Chongqing, a city of 30 million where laptop maker Hewlett Packard and Apple supplier Foxconn have factories, among others.
The first stirrings of this new Silk Road predate Xi’s plan: a direct train to Duisburg in Germany left Chongqing in 2011.
A map published by state news agency Xinhua envisages two routes: an overland one snaking through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran en route to Vienna in Austria; and a maritime route from Chinese ports to Belgium’s Antwerp.
Details remain sketchy, but Xinhua said the plan would focus on China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, building roads, railways, ports and airports across Central and South Asia.
“It is China’s wish to have an independent route,” said Henrik Christensen, president of global logistics at KTZ Express, part of Kazakhstan Railways, which helped develop the Chongqing-Duisburg route.
“The cost of it is so mind-blowingly big and I would say that the only country in the world that could ever dream of this is China,” he said.
One consideration may be the potential for trouble and disruption in the South China Sea, where there are disputes over territorial rights.
Another is the fact that the biggest container shipping lines are European, such as AP Moeller Maersk.
Chinese shipping firms carry only a quarter of the country’s trade.
Based on Reuters calculations, state-backed firms have already invested at least €4bn in transport infrastructure over the past decade along routes that run through Central Asia and weave around Sri Lanka as well as along the Red Sea.
The maritime route links the Chinese ports of Fuzhou and Guangzhou with ports in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Greece. Chinese firms have built or manage about 10 ports and have offered investment in at least five railway projects in Kyrgyzstan, Kenya and elsewhere.
China’s Exim Bank financed 85pc of the first phase of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port.
China Railway Construction led the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed rail line in Turkey.
Train services from Chinese cities to Europe, are loss-making and subsidised by local governments in China to support demand.