Every week four freight trains run directly between Tilburg and Chengdu. China has found North Brabant to be an important logistics hub. Can the province prevent it from ending up in a political web?

It is also referred to as the new Silk Road; a gigantic logistics project that aims to improve China’s connection with Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia. More than €500 billion has been set aside to provide better trade links on land, at sea and in the air. Of course, the Netherlands should not be overlooked, as our country is one of the largest European importers from China. This has led to a direct train connection between Tilburg and the metropolis of Chengdu, which ultimately stretches all the way to Rotterdam. According to GVT International, owner of the Tilburg terminal, it is the  fastest and sole direct train connection between the Netherlands and China. A potentially huge boost for the (local) economy.

Image: World Bank

Great opportunity

Frans-Paul van der Putten is a researcher and China expert at the geopolitical Clingendael Research Institute. “It’s a tremendous opportunity which we should take advantage of,” Van der Putten says. “In the first instance, it is the large companies who are using the train connection to transport goods to and from China. But with the rise of e-commerce, smaller companies also have access to the Chinese market. Shipping takes too long and air travel is still too expensive, so you end up with the railways.” GVT claims that it can deliver within fifteen days because of the direct connection, whereas it takes 45 days by boat.

Political medium

“But at the same time we have to look at what the vested interests are, where they converge and where they do not,” the researcher warns. It is abundantly clear to Van der Putten that the project also has a political aspect. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, as the project is officially called, China is aiming to get a better grip on international relations, both geopolitically and economically. How should North Brabant approach their Chinese counterparts? The province went to Clingendael with that question. This resulted in the Noord-Brabant and China report being drawn up by Van der Putten.

Know what you are getting into

Because the Chinese economy and politics are not easy to separate out, provinces and municipalities may be confronted with international political matters as a result of their direct cooperation – ‘for which they have neither the mandate nor the resources’, according to the report. “But that’s certainly no reason not to do it,” stresses Van der Putten. “As a province, you only need to know what you’re getting yourself into and receive the necessary support from national governmental authorities as well.”

Lack of policy

Yet at the same time, according to the researcher, there is a lack of clear policy at national and EU level. “I believe that current EU strategy is still too limited and abstract. Nor does the Netherlands have a clear strategy for the new Silk Road and on the way to deal with regional actors. What role do they have to play? This should also be included in such a strategy.”

Advices

The report concludes with a number of recommendations: limit cooperation to the current connections with the Chinese Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces, in order to maintain a clear understanding of the interests at stake. Establish a provincial knowledge network so that provinces and municipalities are able to provide advice when dealing with Chinese investors. Work together with similar EU regions. And finally, there is also a supervisory role for the national government.