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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Slow Train to China

With considerable publicity, a goods train will leave the London Gateway today with cargo for China. The containers on the train will be conveyed via the re-opened 'Silk Road' to China. This will involve trans-shipment of the containers to different bogies to travel on the different railway gauges that will make it possible to describe the transport as 'direct' from London to a depot south of Shanghai. The first train the other way came to London a few months ago, and it is proposed to launch a regular two-way service twice monthly. Although this trip takes some 17 days, this is notably quicker than taking cargo by sea - which is much cheaper - and it is cheaper than air freight. Among the cargo items mentioned in the publicity are baby food and whisky: evidence of the growing market for consumer goods in China as the standard of living in that country increases.

There can be no doubt that the limited volume of goods that will follow this route will provide a balance of payments in favour of China; which is a part of the explanation of why the Chinese state has been so keen to secure a land-route to Europe as the situation in the middle east becomes more uncertain. Piracy has not been eradicated from the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca or the Somali coast; even though Chinese and Indian naval forces have joined the international effort to ensure the security of ships, their crews and their cargoes. Large areas of the world are essentially lawless, and much of this opportunity for crime is fostered by the conflicts within and around Islam and Islamism. The geopolitical problems are increasing, and this is the context in which one should view the very heavy investment that China is making in militarising and [effectively] colonising the South China Sea. As more islets and atolls are built up into air bases and naval ports the sea becomes more secure for Chinese trade; but the USA and its allies view this expansionism by China as threatening.

There is an alternative view. When Britain controlled India and much of Asia, it was considered essential that the UK should maintain impregnable bases in Gibraltar, Malta. Suez, Aden, Ceylon [Sri Lanka] and Singapore. It was the surrender of Singapore, more than any dozen other events, that made it evident in the nineteen-forties that Britain had lost the ruthless drive that had created the Empire. The USA still requires Britain to prolong the maltreatment of the native islanders in order to maintain the total security of their base at Diego Garcia. The recent fuss over the sovereignty of Gibraltar has re-opened the issue of these bases, still strung around the world: Britain still rules in Gibraltar, St Helena, Ascension, The Falklands, Pitcairn and a string of non-viable dependencies around the world. Perhaps they could pay their way in a rebuilt security strategy for the UK, in the context of the global alliance of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that automatically exists already. The Chinese know what they are doing: in a non-threatening way, maybe we should do the same.  

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