The war in Ukraine has put China’s rail connectivity to Europe at risk because most of its routes pass through Russia. It has also raised serious questions about the fate of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for building infrastructure across dozens of countries.
Even if the war were to end soon, neither China nor Ukraine would be interested in going ahead with the BRI projects in Ukraine, analysts said.
“BRI projects in Ukraine are basically off the table. Even China may not be interested to continue investing in a country with a seriously damaged economy,” Jacob Mardell, Research Fellow on global infrastructure and China’s foreign policy at the Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies, told VOA.
The BRI is the world’s biggest infrastructure program, with projects in European, Asian and African countries. China is estimated to have invested $59.5 billion in BRI projects last year alone, and more than $800 billion since the program was launched in 2013.
Just a week before the war in Ukraine began on February 24, France agreed with China to jointly build $1.7 billion worth of infrastructure in Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. This plan may come under a cloud as some of the West’s anger toward Russia may spill over onto China, seen by some as a tacit supporter of Moscow.
The China-Europe Railway Express is a transit route for Chinese exports, though it also carries a smaller amount of goods from Europe to Chinese cities. The network has 73 routes, connecting China with Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, and Spain. Freight trains moving along these routes made 3,630 trips in the first quarter of this year, according to official Chinese sources.
The number of these trips is expected to fall by half or more if European countries continue isolating Russia, which falls in the middle of these routes, experts said.
“It is very likely that Russian isolation will impact China’s plans for further developing its BRI rail to Europe, much of which crosses Russian land,” Dexter Roberts, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, told VOA.
“That is almost certain to affect their willingness to accept large shipments of goods crossing Russian territory to and from European markets. And if Russia is being sanctioned, it is extremely unlikely it would allow European goods to transit its territory as well,” said Roberts, author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism.
Besides existing train routes, China has several rail routes in Europe under construction or still on the drawing board that will also be affected.
“China’s enthusiasm for rail connectivity will have to be seriously curbed for now. Beyond the short term, China must bypass the Russian-Belarusian and maybe Ukrainian geography,” said Mohammadbagher Forough, a research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, in an article in The Diplomat.
Faced with challenges in Europe, China may focus on BRI’s Central Asia-West Asia corridor, which connects it with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and other countries. The idea would be to move more Chinese exports via Central Asian countries, the Caspian region, Iran and Turkey.
There are problems with this route, though.
“The rail corridor through Turkey has limited capacity compared to the one passing through Russia, ” Mardell said. “Besides, it involves travelling a part of the journey by sea. On the whole, it is more time-consuming and expensive.”
For several years, Beijing has been hoping to strengthen the transit route in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which connects to the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.
Pakistan, though, has recently gone through political upheaval, resulting in the installation of a new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif. The new government is expected to face a new election by the end of the year. In addition, Pakistan is experiencing a serious financial crunch and is seeking International Monetary Fund aid.
Political observers say Pakistan might delay or cancel some of the CPEC projects because it cannot afford to take on more Chinese debt. Also, the IMF may be less enthusiastic about supporting a country with high levels of debt.
Some analysts have a different view of the situation. “Prime Minister Sharif is known as being skilled at balancing geopolitical relationships. Even as he may try to move closer to the U.S., he almost certainly will work to continue to maintain or more likely to strengthen relations with China,” Roberts said.
Sharif might try to further strengthen CPEC because his Pakistan Muslim League party ushered in the project in 2013, he said.
Even if construction work on CPEC continues unabated, it will be a long time before the Gwadar port has the capacity to allow Chinese exporters to use the Arabian Sea route. It is not an answer to China’s immediate problem, which is European resistance to the flow of Chinese cargo via Russian territory by train.