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Japan firms hopping on modern Silk Road railway under China's 'One Belt One Road'

The Changan arrives in Xian carrying 160 imported cars from Ghent, Belgium, in this undated photo courtesy of the Xinhua News Agency.

XIAN/BEIJING/BANGKOK -- Spanning the Eurasian continent from east to west runs an international freight rail line, the main artery of Chinese President Xi Jinping's "One Belt One Road" policy, touted as a modern Silk Road economic zone and gaining new clients including increasing numbers of Japanese firms.

Xian in northwestern China's Shaanxi Province has been made a distribution hub for One Belt One Road. Once known as Changan, the city was the eastern gateway to the Silk Road and the capital of many Chinese dynasties. Now the cargo train bearing the city's ancient name connects Europe to central Asia. As 789 trains left and arrived at the city from January to August this year, the Changan freight service is at the top of the list of train departures from and arrivals at China's cities.

"It takes about 50 days to reach Germany by sea, but only 18 by train. It takes roughly two months to go to Finland by sea, but only 13 days by train. This train line has had an enormous impact on transport times," said Gao Tian, business manager at Xian Inland Port Transport Co. A representative from a Japanese manufacturer with its production base in China also commented, "Being cheaper than air and shorter than sea transport, the railway is useful as a third method of transporting goods."

Nippon Express Co. began using the railway in 2015. Products are brought to China by air or sea from Japan, and this May, the company began a non-stop route all the way to Duisburg in western Germany. Itochu Logistics Corp. also began services connecting Japan and Europe this year via the railway.

Japanese automakers and heavy machinery manufacturers with factories in China have also gotten on board, and a representative from Nippon Express that handles transport for these companies said the number of customers inquiring about the railway is growing every year.

The Changan freight service began in November 2013, one year before Xi began pushing his One Belt One Road policy. Until the end of 2017, the railway had made only 486 trips in a little over four years since its launch. However, costs were lowered significantly by government subsidies and other methods, and now the railway hopes make 1,000 trips this year.

However, the service is not without problems. While many trains depart from China to Europe packed with goods, not as many products make the return trip. The Changan makes 24 departures per week, but only four trains return carrying goods. The majority of the empty containers return from Europe by ship.

However, Gao is hopeful about the expansion of west-to-east shipments with the entrance of Japanese companies onto the scene. "Japanese producers are shipping parts and other items from Europe. We can transport them," he noted.

The reason behind the stronger Chinese "state policy rail" push is to strengthen the connection between Europe and Central Asia under the One Belt One Road initiative. What is riding on the trans-continental ribbon of steal is China's dream of surpassing the United States as the top world power. The Japanese government is hesitant to support One Belt One Road out of consideration for its long-standing ties with the U.S., but as Japanese companies push the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan and China have begun to search for a road on which they can travel toward development together.

(Japanese original by Joji Uramatsu and Kiyohiro Akama, China General Bureau, and Shinichi Nishiwaki, Asia General Bureau)

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