Two-way trade between China and Belgium received a boost over the weekend after dedicated cargo hub Ezhou Huahu Airport opened its first international freight route bound for Liège Airport in southeastern Belgium. SF Airlines—China’s largest cargo carrier and the main driver of trans-continental integration under the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—operated the inaugural flight.
Located in Hubei Province and backed by SF Airline parent company SF Express, Ezhou Huahu Airport commenced operations last July with plans to launch 40 domestic cargo routes and up to six international freight routes this year. Officials expect cargo throughput to reach 15,000 tonnes by year-end.
The airport expects to open more than 50 domestic routes and over 10 international freight routes by 2025, resulting in 2.45 million tonnes of cargo throughput. By 2030, that number will rise to 3.3 million. Meanwhile, a third runway planned for 2050 would boost cargo to 9.08 million tonnes annually. Beyond freight, the airport also offers regular passenger services.
According to Chinese officials, Ezhou Huahu is the first cargo-focused professional hub in Asia and the fourth of its kind in the world. It also boasts one of the largest trans-shipment terminals on the globe with a total construction area of 900,000 sqm. Last November, the airport saw its first domestic cargo route linking Ezhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong followed by flights to Shanghai. Plans call for passenger and cargo service linking five key city clusters and covering 90 percent of China’s total economy and 80 percent of the population.
Ezhou Huahu Airport, together with Liège Airport, is one of the major cargo connections identified under the aptly named Air Silk Road—an expansive air transport scheme of the BRI. Through aviation diplomacy, the initiative effectively has strengthened bilateral relations and connectivity between China and Belgium, encouraging both sides to launch regular air freight services over recent years.
Buoyed by strategic economic development projects, including cross-border e-commerce activities, the Air Silk Road includes more than 200 cities in 24 European countries and 90 cities across China, according to China’s National Development and Reform Commission. Notable cargo routes include Zhengzhou-Luxembourg, launched in 2017, and Qingdao-Liege, launched in 2020. Belgium’s Ostend-Bruges International Airport also connects to key Chinese cities including Shanghai, Shijiazhuang, and Nanchang.
Complementing air cargo, the China-Europe freight rail service includes 82 routes spanning 200 cities in 24 European countries. Last month, a new international cargo route linking Europe and Shenyang in northeast Liaoning Province opened to 15 member states under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP is the world’s largest free trade agreement, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the global GDP and nearly a third of the world’s population. One of the underlying aims centers on the interoperability of freight service between China and Europe and the newly launched China-Laos Railway. Construction of a 20,000-sqm RCEP enterprise service center also has begun.
With round-the-clock operations and direct rail and road connectivity, Liège serves as a strategic hub for both Europe and China as both sides look to foster a sustainable aviation economy. In 2021, the Cainiao Network—the logistic arm of the Alibaba Group—opened a 30,000-sqm smart logistics facility priced at $112 million following an agreement inked with the Belgian government in 2018. The hub includes a 12,000-sqm air cargo station to transfer export and import goods between the airport’s airside and landside and an 18,000-sqm sorting center for parcels bound for European destinations. Cainiao operates six smart logistic facilities across the globe and more than 240 chartered flights for trunk logistics monthly.
The partnership cements Belgium’s participation in the Alibaba-led Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) initiative, which seeks to reduce barriers to international trade for small and medium-sized e-commerce businesses. A handful of countries, including Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Rwanda already participate in the eWTP plan.
Amid intensifying geopolitical competition, China plans to launch routes to more than 70 countries and regions by 2025, including air links to 50 BRI countries. Nearly 150 countries accounting for about 40 percent of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population have either signed on as BRI participants or signaled an interest in doing so.