Pulse on China’s economy: Transforming China’s western hinterland
New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor expected to strengthen connectivity, enhance trade and human exchanges
Published: Oct 29, 2023 04:19 PM
A cargo train loaded with auto engines and other goods departs from Tuanjiecun Railway Station in Chongqing through the Qinzhou Port in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for overseas destinations on October 11, 2023. Photo: VCG

A cargo train loaded with auto engines and other goods departs from Tuanjiecun Railway Station in Chongqing through the Qinzhou Port in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for overseas destinations on October 11, 2023. Photo: VCG

The development of China's western regions was relatively slower than coastal regions because of geological disadvantages. However, thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the hinterland is shaking off its "backwater" reputation, and becoming a new frontier for China's opening-up and economic growth.

Provinces and cities such as Southwest China's Chongqing and Sichuan have been very active in participating in the iconic BRI. The China-Europe Railway Express and the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor have further connected the region with the world, and turned it into a new growth lever in the country's foreign trade and international investment.

Experts said the BRI is playing an increasingly important role in strengthening the regions' growth momentum and bridging the gap with the country's much developed coastal provinces. During the coming 10 years, China's western hinterland is likely to act a pivotal force to drive China's development.

Notable changes

Located on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, Chongqing is one of the 21 national-level logistical node cities, and an economic hub in Southwest China. The city has grasped the strategic opportunities created by the BRI, taking initiative to open up itself wider and integrate deeply with other economic centers in the region. 

Transportation and logistics always act the basis of opening-up. As an inland city, Chongqing attaches much importance to infrastructure construction in the past four decades, focusing on land, sea, air and network connectivity.

As of October, the Yuxinou (Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe) Express had accomplished over 14,000 trips, while the China-Europe Railway Express train service operating about 50 routes reaching more than 100 cities in Asia and Europe, according to data released by the city government.

"The country's vast western region has unique advantages in leveraging the BRI, which acts as the platform to carry out cooperation with China's BRI partner countries in broad trade, tourism and cultural and educational exchanges. Infrastructure connectivity makes exchanges much easier, helping locals earn more through ramping up their enterprises' global competitiveness," said Song Wei, a professor at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

In 2017, the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor opened to traffic - with Chongqing as the center of operations and other western provinces as key nodes. Now, goods transported via the corridor can be moved across border faster. Today, the corridor covers 473 ports in 120 countries and regions in the world, official data showed.

Against the backdrop of growing volatility in the world, the corridor reflects China's strong transport capability and economic vitality. More and more agricultural products are exported to China from ASEAN and Europe, while more Chinese manufactured products like new-energy cars, electronics and machinery are shipped abroad.

In 2022, Chongqing transported a total of 53,000 standard containers to ASEAN countries via the corridor, up 20 percent year-on-year. Last year saw the foreign trade between Chongqing and ASEAN reach 126.6 billion yuan ($17.3 billion), China (Chongqing) Pilot Free Trade Zone told the Global Times in a recent interview.

Chongqing has also built an agricultural product distribution and trading center, through which, Southeast Asian and European fruit, beef and other agricultural products are being shipped to Chongqing, neighboring Shaanxi, Hubei and other nearby provinces.

Opening-up frontier

With much improved conditions of connectivity, enterprises in western China are integrating into the global industrial chain in a more orderly way.

"Over the past 10 years, our company exported more than 360,000 different products to BRI partner countries, at a value of $42.8 million," Chongqing Mexin Best Doors and Windows Industry Co told the Global Times, noting that its products are sold to markets including the EU, ASEAN, the Middle East and South America.

For example, Chongqing-made quality doors and windows designed for the China-backed Myanmar National Center of Disease Control and Medical Training Center project were recently delivered, the company said.

Benefitting from in-depth integration with the BRI, the region as a whole has posted sound economic growth despite mounting external challenges and difficulties. According to latest data released by local governments, Chongqing's GDP rose by 5.6 percent year-on-year in the first three quarters and Sichuan's GDP up by 6.5 percent.

The BRI makes the western regions a new frontier serving the country's opening-up drive, by injecting new momentum to its development, Song told the Global Times. 

"In recent years, the regions have adopted a series of measures to boost opening and strengthen cross-border cooperation. As a result, their capability to attract talent, capital and technology has increased notably, nurturing new growth momentum," she said.

Bright prospects

Over the past decade, neighboring Shaanxi Province's total import and export volume grew more than 300 percent, and its investment in BRI partner countries over the period reached $1.24 billion, accounting for 23.8 percent of the province's total outbound foreign investment.

And, Sichuan Province ranks top in the region in terms of attracting foreign direct investment, with more than 15,000 foreign enterprises having investment in the province and 381 Fortune Global 500 having offices in the province.

The third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, concluded in October in Beijing, will create new opportunities for further connectivity between China's western region with the world, Gu Xiaosong, dean of the ASEAN Research Institute of Hainan Tropical Ocean University, told the Global Times.

Driven by the BRI as well as opportunities brought about by tech innovations, the development of inland regions can tap into new growth points, Gu said.

During the forum, China's National Development and Reform Commission signed three agreements with Kazakhstan in express railway transportation, jointly building a third cross-border railway and economic development platform. Meanwhile, China has reached consensus with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in jointly building the Air Silk Road, according to official statements.