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China Realizing Sun Yat-sen’s Dream, the Pinglu Canal

Xu Yongke, vice-chairman of the regional government in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region told China Daily on June 12 that the main body of the giant “Pinglu Canal” is expected to be completed at the end of 2026. Planning began in 2019 and construction started in August 2022, Xu said at a Beijing press conference. It means that the idea put forward more than 100 years ago by Sun Yat-sen in his work General Plans for the Founding of a Country will soon become a reality.

Together with the Seine-Nord-Europe canal in France, the Panama canal upgrade, the Qosh Tepa Canal in Afghanistan, and the New Delta Project in Egypt, the Pinglu Canal ranks among the world’s top five canal projects under construction, wrote Construction Briefing in a January feature

The largest Chinese canal project since the “Grand Canal” of the Ming Dynasty, the Pinglu Canal is “a flagship project” on the “New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor,” an important trade and logistics passage jointly built by provincial-level regions in western China and ASEAN member-states

The canal, stretching over 134.2 km with an estimated investment of $10.3 billion, aims to link the Xijiang River, a major waterway of the Pearl River System in southwest China, with ports in the Beibu Gulf (aka Gulf of Tonkin) and the South China Sea. The Xijiang River is the longest river in South China whose shipping volume is second only to the Yangtze River and is known as the “Golden Waterway.”

With China’s “Go West” strategy, the “Beibu Gulf Economic Belt” has emerged as a new highlight of China-ASEAN cooperation, covering Guangdong, Hainan and Guangxi, as well as northern and central Vietnam. Added to this, an intercity railway from Yulin to Qinzhou will also be built to achieve a deep integration among the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, the economic belt alongside the canal, and the Beibu Gulf city cluster.

By shortening the river journey for goods by more than 560 km, it will enable container ships or bulk carriers to sail from the regional capital of Nanning, population 3.8 million, to Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries in weeks. The reduction in transport costs will significantly boost China’s foreign trade and domestic transport demand, and promote the development of industries along the canal. Nanning officials explained that the city will devote great efforts to supporting the development of whole shipping industry chains and enhance cooperation with countries and cities alongside the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor.

Designed to accommodate 5,000 ton vessels, construction involves a spree of demolition, digging and dredging. Workers have to broaden and line the 170 km of pre-existing waterways while excavating a 6.5 km additional canal. Three locks will be built, including what will be the world’s largest water-conserving ship lock. With 28 planned automated container ports, this huge infrastructure program is set to revolutionize the shipping logistics of southern China.

The modernization and expansion of inland waterways was one of the secrets of China’s economic miracle kick-started by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. In 2019, the government announced it was also considering works on two more canals: the Ganyue Canal, connecting Jiangxi and Guangdong, and restoring the Xianggui Canal, linking Hunan and Guangxi. It said both canals could be completed by 2035.