China’s Air Silk Road: Hype Or Reality?

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis    

Chinese media have picked up on a new phrase for part of the Belt And Road Initiative, with the prosaic “Air Silk Road” being bandied about as a new phenomena. But how much of this is hype, and how much is real?

The term has only recently appeared, and it seems true that the Covid-19 pandemic has played a part in its development. However this is only true to a certain extent – rail freight between China and Europe has doubled in 2020 while travel restrictions have taken out large swathes of international flight schedules. Today, the rare sight of an aircrafts vapor trail leads observers to point it out. Last year no-one bothered, flights heading across our skies being commonplace and mundane.

While passenger flights have certainly been hit hard, and along with that, a huge amount of accompanying freight has had to be rescheduled, this is not always true of some aviation hubs. China’s “Air Silk Road” is an unofficial aviation industry initiative operating air freight services along multiple routes between China and Europe. The underlying aim, according to Chinese reports, is “to improve connectivity and develop a sustainable aviation economy”.

The Air Silk Road Reality

There are some developments that support this. Liege Airport in southeastern Belgium is the country’s largest airport in terms of cargo throughput and is one of Europe’s air cargo hubs. At the end of October this year, the Qingdao-Liege all-cargo regular international route was officially opened. It’s the latest addition to the air freight services connecting China with Belgium. While hundreds of scheduled flight routes between China and Europe have been curtailed, the so-called “Air Silk Road” cargo companies at Liege Airport continue to operate at almost full capacity. Liege Airport expects to be among the few airports in Europe to achieve  10% growth in 2020 and its annual cargo volume is projected to exceed one million tons for the first time.

In September this year, new cargo routes connecting Belgium’s Ostend-Bruges International Airport with Shanghai, Shijiazhuang and Nanchang also began. Other air cargo flights shuttling between China and Europe are those on the Zhengzhou-Luxembourg international freight route. It was launched in 2014 after Henan Civil Aviation Development and Investment Co., Ltd. acquired a 35-percent stake in the Luxembourg-based Cargolux Airlines International, which operates the biggest all-cargo airline in Europe. This air freight service currently operates up to 23 flights per week connecting Europe, Asia and the United States, with Zhengzhou at its center.

Aside from Benelux, China has maintained regular international passenger and cargo flights to 45 countries and regions during the year. According to China’s Civil Aviation Authority, China and the Belt and Road Initiative countries and regions operate 1,068 cargo flights per week, 2.6 times more than last year.

The Air Silk Road Hype

The Air Silk Road in Chinese media took an upswing immediately before and after the recent  Chinese singles day, which has been touted as a consumer date for Autumn sales and for ‘singles’ to go and treat themselves. Taking place on November 11 each year, sales have peaked on this date the last five years, and November 11 2020 was a test of China’s consumer resilience in getting over Covid-19.

To properly ‘treat’ themselves, Chinese consumers will often turn to more expensive products – and especially those from Europe. Seizing that business opportunity, and according to Xinhua, Yang Gaijing, an overseas Chinese who has been engaged in the catering industry in Liege for more than 20 years, launched his logistics company this year and wasted no time to join the Singles Day shopping bonanza. “Online shopping has a huge potential in Europe, unlike in China, where the market is saturated. Our company will also focus on helping European SMEs export to China in the future.” he said.

That was dressed up in Chinese media as the Air Silk Road “helping countless European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) deliver their products across thousands of miles.”

China’s Singles Day is also now, via the “Air Silk Road” starting to be developed to be a global day of singles consumerism. On November 11 this year, visitors to the Belgian e-commerce website https://www.facealacrise.be/ were welcomed by advertising which invited them to explore a myriad of high-quality products on offer from Chinese retailers.

In addition to the Air Silk Road helping lonely Chinese feel better every November 11, China has also positioned the concept as proving its worth by “helping save lives during the pandemic.”

Here are some quotes from Xinhua:

“On March 16, 2020, 300,000 face masks arrived from China at Liege Airport via the “Air Silk Road”. This was the first large shipment of personal protective equipment to Belgium since the start of the outbreak. Maggie De Block, the then health minister of Belgium, expressed her country’s gratitude to China in a statement.

On March 21, approximately eight tons of medical supplies provided by the Chinese government to Greece arrived at Athens International Airport on an Air China flight. Greek Health Minister Vasilis Kikilias conveyed his country’s “deepest and warmest thanks and gratitude” to China at the handover ceremony.

Another batch of medical supplies arrived in Luxembourg one day later via the established Zhengzhou-Luxembourg route. The Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency has also stated that in the spring and summer of this year, a total of 12 medical cargo flights arrived in Finland from China to help the country fight the virus.

On April 14, a large shipment of medical supplies — including a record 100 tons of medical cargo transported by Antonov An-225 Mriya, the world’s largest airlift cargo aircraft — arrived in Poland from China.

Back in Liege, the airport has become an anti-epidemic rescue center in recent months. Large volumes of medical supplies coming from China pass through the Liege hub and are transferred to 15 European countries, including Italy and France.

CAAC figures show that China has provided anti-epidemic assistance to 47 countries and regions since the outbreak of COVID-19, delivering more than 1,700 tons of medical supplies. This could not have happened without the “Air Silk Road.”

Summary

The “Air Silk Road” is a real transport corridor – albeit relatively small in terms of the Benelux-China routes shifting goods on Singles Day. Much more interesting though is the near tripling of air cargo to and from China along the Belt & Road routes – although that also has something to do with China closing its overland borders for several weeks due to Covid-19, and the fact that some countries – and especially in Central Asia – rely almost exclusively on air freight supplies if roads and rail are cut off.

Elsewhere in China’s imagination, it exists as a type of Chinese Santa Claus dispensing medical supplies to grateful Europeans. Otherwise the main takeaway from all this is the “Singles Day” movement to introduce lonely consumerism on November 11 to the world.

Starting that in Belgium is a savvy move by Chinese factories wishing to sell goods to cheer depressed people up. Belgium has, after all, one of the highest suicide rates in Europe.

The “Air Silk Road”. China’s answer to the Samaritans?

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About Us

Silk Road Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Asia, and assists foreign investors into the region. For strategic advisory and business intelligence issues please contact the firm at silkroad@dezshira.com or visit www.dezshira.com

 

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