Ministries smooth path for trade

Freight train services between China and Europe gather steam in first quarter, but shipments by sea suffer due to impact of pandemic

China has unveiled a host of measures to free up foreign trade channels, with steps to facilitate the normal operation of international sea, air and rail routes and express delivery services as the novel coronavirus pneumonia pandemic disrupts world trade.

The country will support international cargo ship operators in restoring routes cut due to the pandemic and ensure major trade routes are not suspended, the ministries of transport, commerce, the General Administration of Customs and four other government departments said in a joint notice issued on April 20.

Airlines will receive support to boost the number of cargo flights, including measures to use passenger planes to transport cargoes, so that the country can quickly improve its international cargo transport capacity, the notice said.

China-Europe freight train services will be given a more prominent role, with operators encouraged to increase the frequency of trains and expand the coverage of services, it added.

International package orders and products from cross-border e-commerce operators will be shipped via the freight railway routes as part of a slew of measures to solve delayed deliveries.

Cargo throughput at Chinese ports dropped 4.6 percent year-on-year to 3.01 billion metric tons in the first quarter of the year, with container throughput down by 8.5 percent, data from the Ministry of Transport showed.

Customs data showed China's foreign trade contracted by 6.4 percent in the first quarter to 6.57 trillion yuan ($927.7 billion), with exports dropping by 11.4 percent and imports by 0.7 percent.

To speed up international express delivery services, the notice said delivery service providers will be encouraged to boost international cargo transport capacity via channels such as their own cargo flights, or chartering or renting planes.

The authorities also pledged to ease the passage of vehicles used to import or export key epidemic containment materials, and other materials needed for construction and production.

More work will be done to promote one-stop services in international trade, streamline the oversight of exports and imports and refine maritime supervision and customs clearance procedures, the notice said.

Li Tianbi, head of the Ministry of Transport's department of water transport, told a news briefing on April 18 that over 90 percent of China's exports and imports were shipped by sea but the $320 billion reduction in global trade due to the pandemic had seen demand for international shipping decline.

The ministry has introduced tax and fee cuts that have saved businesses 7.4 billion yuan and stepped up coordination with China's major trading partners to prevent excessive quarantine measures and ensure normal shipping operations, he said.

Freight train services between China and Europe have become a new pillar in bilateral trade during the pandemic.

Wu Qian, deputy head of Chongqing Customs' port supervision division, said 144 containers had been shipped via the Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe railway between January and April 20, enabling the shipment of over 2.76 million parcels-eight times the number in the same period last year.

The rail freight route, part of the China-Europe freight network, now accounted for over 70 percent of parcels shipped from China to Europe, she said.

To fast-track the customs clearance process, Chongqing Customs refined cooperation mechanisms with peers in Beijing, Shenzhen and Urumqi to optimize work procedures and offer one-stop services to exporters, she said.

China-Europe freight trains made a total of 1,941 trips in the first quarter, up 15 percent year-on-year, and transported the equivalent of 174,000 standard 20-foot containers of goods, up 18 percent, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news briefing on Thursday.

"The regular operation of the China-Europe freight train service helps facilitate the cross-border flow of goods and services as well as the resumption of work and production, and mitigate the pandemic's impact on China-Europe cooperation in supply chains and industrial chains," he said.