Australian miners are looking to capitalise on China’s massive plan to rebuild trade routes connecting the Asian powerhouse to other parts of the world.

China’s One Belt, One Road or “Silk Road” program — an ambitious initiative to build efficient trade corridors between China, Asia, the Middle East and Europe — generated enthusiasm when it was announced in 2013.

But the multi-trillion-dollar project, which would involve new rail, road and maritime infrastructure in some  70 countries — still has a long way to go.

“I don’t think the One Belt, One Road associated projects will take off in the next three to five years,” May Zhong, director of corporate ratings for S&P Global Ratings, told Stockhead.

“If you expect that the project will ramp up in five years time, you need to start investing in greenfields or brownfields expansion now — in particular for iron ore or those bulk commodities.

“But at the moment we haven’t seen any material pick-up in greenfield investment, in particular in Australia.

“I think people believe this is positive to raw material demand and also the mining industry globally, and in Australia in general, but no one has invested so far to bank on the take-off of that project yet.”

The players

Tian Poh Resources (ASX:TPO) recently inked a memorandum of understanding with China’s Shenwu Environmental Technology to advance a coal-to-gas project sourcing coal from Tian Poh’s Nuurst coal mine in Mongolia.

Phase one of the project is expected to begin producing gas by 2020 to supply both the Mongolian and Chinese markets.

Tian Poh said the coal-to-gas project is consistent with China’s One Belt, One Road plan and both companies are looking to secure Chinese government funding for the project.

Mining heavyweight BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) said in September last year that power, railways, pipelines and other transport projects account for 70 per cent of the planned $US1.3 trillion ($1.66 trillion) investment.

“The demand for infrastructure investment in [One Belt, One Road] regions is huge,” BHP noted.

The 400 core projects are expected to drive significant demand for construction materials and could deliver up to 150 million tonnes of incremental steel demand, according to BHP.

In turn, this would drive demand for the components used in steel such as iron ore and coking coal. Copper would also be a highly sought-after commodity.

Long-term benefit 

While BHP has come up with its own estimates, Ms Zhong believes it is too early to say how much the One Belt, One Road initiative will impact demand and that any potential kickstart to demand is still some time away.

“I know that some miners will say that it will add an additional 150 million tonnes of steel, but I think that’s just an estimate because until China lays out a detailed plan on how many projects they are going to build within a certain timeframe, then we are unable to quantify,” Ms Zhong said.

“I think at the moment the potential benefit is still in the medium to longer term.”

The key hurdle to the realisation of the initiative is funding. China apparently prefers that the cash to fund the projects comes from outside the Asian nation.

However, if China is serious about its One Belt, One Road project, the increased demand for commodities will be “material”, Ms Zhong noted.

“Think about how many countries are involved in the whole One Belt, One Road and also if you build a port or a power station in each country, adding them all together the demand will be material.”

Nearly 70 countries covering a vast area of Eurasia and parts of Africa and Oceania form part of the initiative. Collectively, these areas house half the world’s population and comprise almost one third of the global economy.

Of the 68 countries, only 10 are net steel exporters, BHP noted.

“The rest all rely on steel imports to some extent. More than 20 countries do not have any steel smelting capacity at all.”

Ms Zhong believes Australia, in much the same fashion it has over the past two decades, will continue to be a key raw material exporter to China if the One Belt, One Road project really takes off.