Hungary-Serbia railway could inspire divided world as protectionism rises

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT

The construction of the Hungary-Serbia railway, a flagship project of the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative (BRI), will help inject new impetus into the economies of the two countries. The railway, plus the China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in 2023, may provide people with a new perspective on the increasingly fragmented global trade situation.

As reported by the Xinhua News Agency on Sunday, Serbia’s Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure Goran Vesic said that Serbia’s participation in the BRI has boosted the overall development of the country and its neighbors. He cited the construction of the Hungary-Serbia railway as an example of successful BRI cooperation.

The Hungary-Serbia railway is a double-track electrified railway with a total length of 341.7 kilometers, including 183.1 kilometers in Serbia. Sitting at the crossroads of Central and Southern Europe – and often seen as a geographical region that straddles both Eastern and Western Europe – Serbia has unique geographical advantages. The construction of the railway is expected to improve connectivity between Hungary and Serbia and help clear barriers from Serbia to Greece’s Piraeus Port, a transit hub connecting Europe, Asia and Africa.

The Hungary-Serbia railway is considered an important project to improve physical connectivity, as part of multifaceted cooperation aimed at deepening economic exchanges. 

Connectivity includes not only physical infrastructure like roads and railways but also institutional arrangements to make it easier to strengthen exchanges among different regions.

China and Serbia signed an FTA in October 2023. The signing of the FTA and subsequent tariff cuts have enhanced trade relations, boosted Serbia’s exports and – more importantly – served as a bridge to open up new trade routes and ramp up trade and investment between China and Europe. 

Trade between China and Europe reached $1.215 trillion in 2023. Both sides have strong trade complementarity, and unleashing this potential can generate more positive influences on Europe’s economy, helping solve problems it faces, such as stubborn inflation. 

The lingering question is how to unleash this huge potential. There are two critical factors. On the one hand, we should continue to promote infrastructure interconnectivity; on the other hand, we should take concrete actions to reject all forms of protectionism and unequivocally advocate for and support free trade.

Facing a complex and volatile international situation, China and Serbia, acting as each other’s “ironclad friends,” have continuously enhanced cooperation in multiple fields such as railway infrastructure construction and free trade. These factors interact with one another, forming a joint force to boost economic cooperation.

The nature of cooperation is mutually beneficial, and that’s why the Serbian side holds a positive attitude toward cooperation with China. Vesic said Serbia is proud of its participation in the BRI, under which Chinese companies have undertaken many infrastructure projects in the country.

The construction of the Hungary-Serbia railway reached a milestone on April 25, when the track-laying work for a 108-kilometer section between Novi Sad and Subotica in Serbia was completed. It’s not always easy to undertake large-scale infrastructure projects, and the construction of the Hungary-Serbia railway faces some challenges, but the project has been steadily advancing. That’s because this is good for the Serbian economy, which could benefit greatly from infrastructure projects.

Amid global economic uncertainty, various countries, including those in Europe, are trying to gain new growth momentum as traditional drivers weaken. What is needed today is to improve economic connectivity and further promote free trade. As long as cooperation can bring tangible economic benefits to local economies, it will eventually overcome temporary challenges and difficulties.

The US-advocated “decoupling” and Washington’s geopolitical games have brought enormous challenges to global trade, but globalization and free trade are the only ways to promote mutually beneficial cooperation. Politicians with a sober mind will not politicize economic issues and not fall into the “decoupling from China” trap.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. [email protected]

Forward-thinking strategies proposed at two sessions as China-proposed BRI embarks on high-quality development for next decade

Cargo ships dock at and leave the Taicang Port in East China's Jiangsu Province on January 24, 2024. Photo: VCG

Cargo ships dock at and leave the Taicang Port in East China’s Jiangsu Province on January 24, 2024. Photo: VCG

At the ongoing two sessions, the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee, hot topics that relate to both China and the world have been proposed and discussed. One particular highlight is the discussions over the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has just marked its decade of anniversary last year and is now embarking on the next decade of a new journey for high-quality development.

Over the past decade, the joint construction of the BRI has delivered prosperous results for participating countries. Thanks to the joint initiative, many developing countries have gained increasing access to global markets, eased their financing problems for much-needed infrastructure projects, filled an “infrastructure deficit,” strengthened their comparative advantages, and boosted their capacity for independent economic development, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency.

Members and deputies of the two sessions, many of whom have direct experience and participation in BRI projects have noted how the initiative has brought about changes to participating countries over the past decade.

On this special occasion, they have also proposed strategies across various sectors, spanning from personnel training to connectivity and green development, while vowing to embrace high-quality development, which aligns with the future trajectory of the initiative.

Talent matters

In addition to daily lectures, one of the most important works for Zhang Shuibo, a professor of the College of Management and Economics of Tianjin University, was to lead his team to carry out major research projects to serve domestic enterprises engaged in the BRI, covering investment and financing, operations, logistics, international engineering contracting among other aspects, based on cultivating high-end talent ahead of “going global.”

Over the past two years, Zhang has held training courses for dozens of enterprises and trained thousands of international engineering management talents.

As a deputy to the 14th NPC, one very important subject for Zhang this year relates to the joint construction of the BRI, he told the Global Times during the two sessions.

As the initiative pursues high-quality development in the next decade, one key aspect needs to be strengthened is the personnel training, with Luban Workshop program being a core.

The workshop, named after Lu Ban, an ancient Chinese woodcraft master, is a Chinese vocational workshop program aims to promote vocational education exchanges and cooperation between China and the rest of the world committed to developing urgently needed technical talents.

The joint construction of the BRI is shifting from scale-oriented development to high-quality development, which poses higher demands on talent, Zhang said.

“To address this, we have introduced a series of policies to promote the cultivation of local talent, aiming to better benefit local development and ensure the efficient operation of projects,” Zhang said.

Luban Workshop Research and Promotion Centers are established in local technical colleges or other educational institutions, and local enterprises are also involved and receive certain subsidies from the government for the training. Currently, there are approximately 200 Luban Workshops worldwide, according to Zhang.

“The standardization and high quality of the curriculum is needed for the next stage of development,” Zhang said.

Specifically, when collaborating with schools in various countries, our curriculum design should be adjusted and optimized according to the industrial development of each country and the needs of Chinese enterprises in countries of the joint construction of the BRI, Zhang said.

However, other challenges persist against the backdrop of the growing complexity of the international situation, with rising geopolitical tensions and a slow economic recovery worldwide.

To address these difficulties, Zhang proposed to ramp up support the BRI by increasing the loans of Chinese yuan in better response to the fiscal difficulties faced by many countries and their insufficient foreign exchange reserves.

“By doing so, it will not only help the countries’ development but also promoting the internationalization of the yuan,” the NPC deputy said.

Stronger connectivity

In jointly building the BRI, connectivity is crucial. Among key projects, railways, as the backbone of integrated transportation systems, are an important component of infrastructure connectivity, as the initiative is deepening its high-quality development, said Liu Zhenfang, chairman of the board of the China State Railway Group Co, who is also a deputy to the 14th NPC, in its proposal read by the Global Times.

The 142.3-kilometer-long high-speed line, connecting Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta and the fourth largest city Bandung, serves as a flagship project and successful example of developing countries in the region working together toward modernization.

Meanwhile, the China-Laos Railway, another iconic project, has become a game changer for the Southeast Asian country, opening it up to greater economic opportunities.

Few transportation networks rival the cross-continental China-Europe freight train in terms of its significant transportation capacity and its contribution to economic and trade growth, bridging the East and the West.

As of the end of January, the China-Europe freight train had operated over 84,000 trips cumulatively, reaching 219 cities in 25 countries across Europe, according to media reports, highlighting its role as a stabilizer of the global supply chain, particularly amid the Red Sea crisis.

Liu said in his proposal that in 2024 that China Railway will fully leverage a coordination mechanism linked to the China-Europe freight train, continuously enhance the transportation capacity of key ports and corridors, expand the operation of scheduled freight trains along the entire route, and promote the cross-continental cargo train to develop toward higher quality, better efficiency, and increased safety.

Moreover, Liu pledged to intensify exchanges this year with international cooperation organizations and foreign railway institutions to promote the internationalization of Chinese railway standards.

In addition to connectivity, green is also an important part of the high-quality development for the BRI. Wang Tongzhou, a member of the CPPCC National Committee and chairman of China Communications Construction Co, proposed to further support and encourage research and development and the widespread application of green technologies in order to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption across the entire industry chain under the BRI. “That includes creating a number of exemplary green projects in promoting green development in the joint construction of the BRI,” Wang said.

The achievements under the BRI have provided clear evidence, paving an auspicious path toward the high-quality development of the initiative.

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has signed over 240 cooperation agreements promoting the joint construction of the BRI with more than 150 countries and over 30 international organizations. This has resulted in a multitude of cooperative projects, establishing the broadest and largest international cooperation platform in the world, said Liu Jieyi, spokesperson for the second session of the 14th CPPCC National Committee, said at a press conference on March 3.

Looking ahead, the prospects for the high-quality construction of the BRI are promising, said Liu.