SUZHOU, Jiangsu — Heads of governments from central and eastern Europe (CEE) nations got to experience the “China speed” firsthand on Nov 25 when, accompanied by Premier Li Keqiang, they boarded China’s most advanced bullet train.
The CRH380A has a maximum speed of 486 kilometers per hour. The 25-minute trip took the leaders from the garden city of Suzhou to financial hub of Shanghai, 100 kilometers away, speeding past industrial parks and factories much of where laid bare farmlands just a decade ago.
At that speed, the train would take less than 20 hours to travel from Beijing to any of the leaders’ hometowns.
Flags of China and 16 CEE countries and slogans that read “16+1>17” were painted on the body of the 16-carriage train, highlighting cooperation and development between China and the 16 countries which just completed an annual summit meeting in Suzhou, east China.
“The trip mirrors China-CEE cooperation - high speed, but comfortable and reassuring,” Premier Li told the European leaders.
“It is very impressive,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Orban Viktor. “China’s development is indeed admirable.”
His words echoed those of Polish President Andrzej Duda who said a day earlier that he hoped Poland and the entire Central and Eastern Europe could all benefit from China’s growth.
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas expressed hopes that China will take part in high-speed railway construction in the Baltic region.
The excursion on Nov 25 came just a day after China signed two separate deals with Hungary and Serbia on a high-speed rail link between Budapest and Belgrade that could cut travel time between the two capitals from eight hours to less than three.
Once completed, the railway will become part of a fast lane for importing and exporting goods between China and Europe. Macedonia also inked a deal with China in June to purchase six fleets of high-speed trains.
China is actively working to export high-speed rail technology, with domestic and foreign media sometimes referring to Premier Li as the country’s top railway salesman. A new term -- high-speed railway diplomacy -- has entered Chinese political parlance.
The situation is clearly win-win. China gets to upgrade its economy and partner countries get infrastructure with lower costs.
China’s first overseas high-speed rail project was completed in Turkey in 2014 where a 533-km railway links capital Ankara with Istanbul. In Africa, China’s technology will be the backbone of the public transport systems in countries including Nigeria and Ethiopia.
A 1,344-km railroad went into operation in Angola in 2014 and last May a deal was struck to build a 3.8 billion dollar line between the two Kenyan cities of Mombasa and Nairobi, the first phase of a line that will eventually connect Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
In September, Malaysia began running the world’s fastest meter-gauge multiple unit trains made by Chinese. Laos, Thailand and Russia also plan high-speed railway lines with Chinese investment.
In South America, Chinese trains began ferrying Buenos Aires’ commuters to work last November.
High-speed rail in Central and Eastern Europe is a new idea, but the long-term effects are not difficult to assess. With China’s ambitious plans taking shape, Central and Eastern Europe will soon have a new, convenient channel to import and export products to and from Asia.
For China, these deals are not just about trains, but so much more.
In official political parlance, the Chinese word “train” almost always takes on an extra interpretation of being positive and cooperative.
“Welcome aboard China’s train of development!” President Xi Jinping told Mongolian lawmakers in Ulan Bator last year. “You can take a ride on our express train or just make a hitchhike, all are welcome.”
Premier Li drew a similar metaphor in Suzhou in his keynote speech to the summit on Nov 24, comparing China-CEE cooperation to a train picking up speed.
“From Warsaw to Bucharest, from Belgrade to Suzhou, we are all aboard this high-speed train,” Premier Li said with obvious pride.
There are good reasons to be proud. Trade between China and the 16 CEE countries exceeded $60 billion last year, just one tenth of China-EU trade. The total amount is relatively low, but the growth rate is impressive. In 2010, the figure was only $44 billion.
“Faced with a sluggish global picture, China and CEE countries have maintained good momentum on practical cooperation, with rapidly growing trade and investment, and major cooperative projects underway,” Premier Li said.
China plans to double its trade with the region by 2019, and, in the current climate, the mood is comparatively upbeat. Two-way investment is up: Chinese companies have invested more than $5 billion in CEE countries and more than $1.2 billion in investment has come flowing back, according to China’s commerce ministry.
Cross-border e-commerce means CEE-made beer, wine, chocolate and cosmetics are gaining popularity in China.
Tourism is an area with plenty of scope for improvement. Chinese tourists made over 130 million outbound trips last year, but most headed to the Republic of Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia and Western Europe.
A medium-term agenda published on Nov 24 agreed to link China’s Belt and Road Initiative to CEE development strategies, taking advantage of China’s strength in infrastructure building and finance to meet CEE countries’ need for connectivity. Flagship projects, like the Budapest-Belgrade railway, are in the spotlight, but there are plenty more.
The leaders discussed the China-proposed initiative to promote cooperation among port areas in the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. China also expressed willingness to participate in Slovenia’s Port of Koper renovation.
The Belt and Road will benefit both China and CEE countries, Polish President Andrzej Duda said, adding that Poland, as Eurasia’s logistics center, is vital in promoting China-European trade. All 16 CEE countries are on the Belt and Road.
A China-Europe land-sea express passage will strengthen connectivity and scale up trade between China and Europe.
China is considering a $3-billion investment fund and a “16+1” multilateral financing channel to reduce investment costs. “As long as CEE countries use products and equipment made by China, China will provide financing support,” Premier Li said.