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The Belt and Road in China’s Northwest

24 Apr The Belt and Road in China’s Northwest

The Belt and Road Initiative is typically associated with China’s efforts to engage foreign partners. The initiative’s effects on China’s domestic situation are thus sometimes overlooked. An example of the BRI’s domestic implications can be seen in China’s northwest, where limited access to sea routes has resulted in limited economic growth. Development across north-western provinces like Shaanxi, Gansu and Xinjiang galvanised by the BRI thus potentially offers provincial and municipal governments new horizons for progress.

Mr Gareth Tan, a Policy Research Analyst at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, recently joined a visit to northwest China to meet officials and understand BRI-related projects. Organised by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the delegation visited Xi’an in Shaanxi province, Dunhuang in Gansu province and Urumqi in Xinjiang province.

Briefing at China Express's Xi'An Inland Container Port on how China-Europe rail connectivity could change freight transport.

Briefing at China Express’s Xi’An Inland Container Port on how China-Europe rail connectivity could change freight transport.

Xi’an 西安 (Shaanxi)

In Xi’an, delegates met with representatives from Shaanxi province’s municipal Foreign Affairs Office, and were briefed on how the province intended to develop in concert with the BRI.

The delegation also visited Xi’an’s Northwest University and met with scholars specialising in the BRI. During discussions, Shaanxi’s objective of transforming itself into a ‘gateway’ economy, trade capital and education hub for China’s northwest was emphasised. Delegates were also brought to visit Xi’an’s “inland container port”, which is run by China Railway Express Company, and serves as a hub for trade between China’s coastal regions and Europe.

Dunhuang 敦煌 (Gansu)

During the short stopover in Dunhuang, the delegation was met by municipal officials, who spoke of the city’s journey towards becoming tourist hub. Pre-dating the BRI, this effort capitalised on the city’s proximity to cultural landmarks like the Mogao caves, which are designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The officials also expanded on the city’s current plans to integrate itself into the BRI, positioning Dunhuang as a cultural hub.

Urumqi 乌鲁木齐 (Xinjiang)

In Urumqi, the delegation met representatives from both the private and public sectors at the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone. At the meeting, a wide range of topics was discussed, including Singapore’s past initiatives in China, and the possibility of a tie-up between Singapore and Xinjiang. BRI projects in Pakistan and Central Asia were also addressed, with officials lauding development while also acknowledging challenges to progress, such as obstacles brought about by the need to develop transport links through difficult or contested terrain.

Delegates were also brought to the Xinjiang Comprehensive Bonded Zone and Railway Port, which, similar to Xi’an’s “inland container port”, was also intended to serve as a terminus for westbound and eastbound goods. They were subsequently brought to view the manufacturing facilities of the privately operated TBEA company, which specialises in the manufacture of machinery for use in the transmission and storage of electricity. Here, the delegates were briefed on partnerships between China’s public and private sectors to establish eastbound ultra-high voltage energy transmission networks and more renewable energy capacity in Xinjiang and Gansu.

The trip provided comprehensive insights into the progress that has been made in developing infrastructure and connectivity in China’s northwest. Each destination served as a testament to the efforts made by the Chinese government to address the challenges its western provinces faced in terms of accessing lucrative international trade networks. The sheer scale of what China was able to accomplish, in covering hundreds of square kilometres with wind power turbines, or laying high-voltage transmission lines west-to-east across the country, cannot be understated.

While it is apparent that most of these efforts pre-date the inception of the BRI, and possibly spoke more to changes brought about since China’s opening in the 1970s, these accomplishments are testament to what the BRI, as China’s single most visible mega-project, can bring to the table. However, with the slowing economic growth in China and faltering foreign enthusiasm towards the BRI’s presence, it remains uncertain the impact it will bring to China’s northwest.