A little over two years ago, the first direct rail freight service from China to the UK rolled into Barking’s 165-year old station to much fanfare.
Of course, the completion of this mammoth 18-day, 7,500-mile trip from the Chinese city of Yiwu marked the moment that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reached the UK.
But it also demonstrated the huge potential of the twenty-first century Silk Road proposed by President Xi back in 2013.
The timing of the second Belt and Road Forum – which is happening later this month – is significant, coming some five years after the initiative was first announced.
Since then, we’ve seen this huge project go from a concept on the drawing board to the reality of roads, railways and ports.
More than 100 countries and international organisations have signed up, and some $350bn has been committed to projects.
Here in the UK, we’ve gradually become known as the natural western end of the BRI.
While the government is yet to officially endorse the initiative, we now have a BRI envoy in the form of Sir Douglas Flint, who in turn chairs a BRI board of British businesses and government partners, including the City Corporation.
After all, with its unrivalled talent pool of financial and professional services, the UK financial sector has so much to offer the BRI, from consultancy, legal services, and foreign exchange to fintech, accountancy and infrastructure
financing. And of course, this sector has hundreds of years of experience and countless success stories to share.
As a result, we are well placed to support partners in China and across the world to ensure the Initiative is a success, particularly in terms of projects in third countries where UK and Chinese strengths are complementary.
Already in the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and even here in the UK, organisations such as Standard Chartered, HSBC, Linklaters, Clifford Chance and UK Export Finance are working hand-in-hand with Chinese partners, providing services like banking, legal advice and financing.
Yes, there is still work to be done, and yes, questions remain as to transparency and debt.
But what is obvious is that the conversation has moved on from “what constitutes a Belt and Road project” to “where are the business opportunities?”.
There is growing awareness of deals and opportunities in BRI countries. And indeed, there are potential areas that private sector players from international financial centres across the world can support.
That’s why I’ll be at the BRI Forum in Beijing flying the flag for UK industry to become more closely involved with the initiative.
If Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be bold, particularly when it comes to embracing opportunities for trade in this increasingly connected world.
The Belt and Road is a perfect example of how we can do this, leveraging our existing strengths for the mutual benefit of countries across the world.