Staunton, Sept, 27 – Rising charges for the use of the Suez Canal and growing Chinese exports as the pandemic has ebbed – they are up 38 percent this year over last -- have led more Chinese shippers to try to use the intermodal route to Europe of ships to Russian Far Eastern ports and then transfer to Russian railways in recent months.
The increased demand is so great, however, that some Chinese ships are now backed up a week or more waiting to offload because the capacity of the ports, and especially of the smaller Russian ports, is insufficient to handle the flow of Chinese goods (kommersant.ru/doc/5006335 and trtrussian.com/novosti/rossijskie-porty-na-dalnem-vostoke-okazalis-peregruzheny-tovarami-iz-kitaya-6723947).
According to Russian officials, once the goods are offloaded from the ships, the Russian rail system has enough capacity to carry all the goods China wants to send to Europe; but the ports are becoming a bottleneck. How long Beijing will tolerate that is uncertain, but pressure will undoubtedly grow on Moscow to expand port capacity.
Expanding ports is an expensive and time-consuming challenge; and if Russia is to meet it for its Chinese partner, Moscow will likely have to divert funds from its other development projects east of the Urals, including not only plans like those of Sergey Shoygu to build entirely new cities but also efforts to hold the Russian population there.
China may seek to intervene and become the port builder of last resort in the Russian Far East; but if that happens, it will represent yet another step in Beijing’s neo-colonial approach to the Russian Far East, something that will become so obvious that Russians already nervous about the increase in Chinese influence there will become even more worried.
That in turn could complicate the development of ties between Moscow and Beijing – or even force China to pay the higher transit charges via Suez or the longer shipping times via the Northern Sea Route rather than have its ships sit in lines off Russian ports too small to handle demand.