China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Impact on Lumber Imports
According to trade data sourced from China Customs, China imported 36.8 million cubic metres of lumber in 2018, a slight decline of 1.6 percent from 2017. Of total lumber imports, softwood lumber accounted for 24.9 million cubic metres, a slight decrease of one percent compared to 2017.
However, Russian softwood lumber exports to China were a whopping 15.65 million cubic metres in 2018, an increase of 10 percent compared with 2017. This is more than double the exports in 2014 and now represents a 63% share of the China market. Clearly, China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI) was partly responsible for the increase in softwood lumber volumes from Russia to China.
The Belt & Road Initiative is a massive program that includes many large-scale infrastructure projects with other countries. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the main purpose was to shift overproduction to inland regions, taking advantage of China’s lower labor costs and capacity. At the same time, it’s designed to improve the supply chains of key suppliers and to crucial export markets, improving the competitiveness of Chinese goods and raw materials.
In 2018, the number of operational China-Europe block trains had exceeded 6,363 (vs. 3,678 in 2017), running between 56 Chinese cities and 49 cities in 15 different European countries. Among these, 2,690 were return trains that shipped from Europe to China, a significant increase of 111% from 2017.
Currently, about 50 to 60 percent of total container transportation costs of China-Europe block trains are being paid through local government subsidies since the regular cost is still very high. This is partly due to the lower number of “return-block trains” (from Europe to China) versus “go-block trains” (from China to Europe). Therefore, the development of the return train is one of the key factors that will determine whether China-Europe block trains can finally operate without government subsidies. Russian lumber has been one of the most important products shipped on the return-block trains. From the central government’s plan, the subsidy mechanism is expected to be canceled in 2020.
The following map highlights major supplying cities in Russia along the rail route to China. The green dots represent major rail hubs in Russia and the red dots are the major inland cities in China.
Every week from Russia Siberia (Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk), there are regular block trains to central Chinese cities such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi’an and Wuhan. There are also less frequent trains going to Linyi and Ganzhou. Total transportation costs paid by Chinese importers vary from $1,800 – $3,000 per 40’ container, which is faster, and also cheaper than (or the same with) shipping from Russia to China by regular trains followed by inland transportation.
Although no exact number has been released, block-train operating companies estimate there were around 600 return-block trains, with around 1.2 million cubic meters of lumber shipped to China in 2018. Most of it was from Russia and some quantity was shipped from Finland and Sweden. Chengdu, Chongqing and Xi’an were three of the main inland cities for return block trains with Russian lumber in 2018, representing more than 80% of the total lumber volume.
As a result of the BRI, there is more Chinese investment in Russia’s forest and wood industries, both from state-owned and private sector companies. Furthermore, it seems that more recent investment is being focused on remanufactured products with more kiln-dried lumber and profiled products being sent to markets in China. Value-added and kiln-dried products can be shipped much further into China and at lower costs compared to heavier green lumber.
The block trains under BRI have brought great changes to the imported lumber supply chains in China, making Russian suppliers more competitive. However, the block train system still struggles to operate at a reasonable cost. Only when the real operational cost is reduced to the market competitive level, will BRI block trains be developed for the long term after the government subsidy is cancelled in coming years.
About the writer: Jane Guo is the China Operations Manager for Forest Economic Advisors. In this role, Jane is responsible for conducting market research, information assessments, industry evaluation as well as logistics organization for market trips, conferences and tours in China. The focus of the China office is on softwood log and lumber products, but a variety of other products is also covered (some hardwood and value-added products).