China’s Railroad Expansion: An Alternative to Maritime Dependence



Last January, China marked yet another milestone in its global railroad expansion. The first train carrying Chinese textile goods arrived in England after traveling across Eurasia for 18 days. The rail freight passed through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France covering a total of 12,000km (7456.4543mi). If there was ever any doubt that China is serious about its long term economic goals, this settles it. 

China has benefited from globalization immensely. It was not too long ago that President Xi Jinping vehemently defended globalization at Davos and declared that “no one will emerge as a winner from a trade war.” There was an impression that President Xi wanted to fill the position that had been traditionally assigned to American presidents. The leader of the Communist Party was calling for a more interconnected world with a free movement of goods and people. Moreover, Xi’s assertiveness was a hint that China is eager to fill the economic vacuum should America slide to protectionism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking at the Davos World Forum in early 2017, defending globalization.

It is true that economic acceleration is the driving force of China’s railroad expansion. However, there is another factor that perhaps better explains China’s motives: geopolitics. China wants a long term and undisturbed economic growth.  Therefore, reducing its dependence on maritime transportation is an absolute must. The superb US Navy has a long and solid presence in South China Sea. Beijing views this as an obstacle to its regional aspirations.

The territorial disputes in the region make the risk of armed conflicts significant. The contest over Spratly Islands alone can exacerbate this volatility and turn minor skirmishes into a full-scale war. The U.S. would be compelled to use force to defend the Straits of Malaca, Lombok, and Sunda that include the sea line communications around the Spratly Islands. The region serves as an economic lifeline for the U.S. given the amount of merchant ships that pass through the straits. The Chinese comprehend that the engagement of U.S. Navy in a maritime conflict and a blockade of the trade routes would halt China’s economic development. Hence, Beijing aims at diversifying the trade routes via its massive railway projects.


Now, if Sir Halford Mackinder, the founder of geopolitics, were still around, he would probably argue that the Chinese railroad expansion is poised to end the dominance of maritime powers. For many decades, it was expected that Russia or Germany would fulfill Mackinder’s prophecy. However, none of the land powers has ever engaged in such aggressive railroad expansion like China. Mackinder famously wrote, “But transcontinental railways are now transmuting the conditions of land power, and nowhere they can have such effect as in the closed heart-land of Euro-Asia, in vast areas of which neither timber nor accessible stone was available for road-making.”

It is premature to conclude whether China is destined to become the master of Mackinder’s Heartland or not. But it is clear that Beijing will vigorously continue looking for new markets to export its goods. The slowdown of trade circulation will result in factory closures across China leaving thousands unemployed—something that the Chinese leadership wants to avoid at any cost. China has increased its economic leverage in countries that traditionally have been in Russia’s sphere of influence. One of the best manifestations of China’s economic statecraft is the recent mining deal with Mongolia. As per agreement, China will resume its coal production in Mongolia and help the latter to pay off its huge debt.  


China has boosted the military spending to protect its economic interests. It cannot replace the US as a global policeman. But it definitely has the potential to become a regional hegemony and extend its influence across Eurasia. Economic statecraft will be its main tool and the construction of new railroads a decisive strategy to link with other continental countries.

Unlike Russia and Germany, China expands its influence without military interventions. Beijing lures the neighboring states with attractive economic deals. The demise of Trans-Pacific Partnership will further facilitate the integration of Asian countries into Chinese economy.

Here is the full video of President Xi Jinping’s speech to Davos in 2017 (translated in English):

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 10.23.51 PMErik Khzmalyan is a Fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute. Erik specializes in U.S. Foreign Policy, Eurasia, and Geopolitics. He is currently an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.


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