The Balkans, Black Sea region and China's New Silk Road
In this opinion, Sr research fellow Frans-Paul van der Putten highlights China's interests in the Balkans and Black Sea Region in relation to its New Silk Road initiative.
On 24-26 May 2017, the first Balkans and Black Sea Cooperation Forum took place in Serres, Greece. The forum aims to strengthen cooperation throughout this region in various regards, including in terms of transport and infrastructure. One of the topics debated at the forum related to the role of China and its Belt and Road (also known as ‘One Belt, One Road’ or OBOR) initiative to build a modern-day silk road.
It is in the Balkans and Black Sea region that the contemporary equivalents of the silk road on land (via Central Asia) and the maritime silk road (via the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean Sea) meet each other and connect to Europe. A land route via the Black Sea region would provide China with a transport corridor to Europe that avoids areas that are part of, or militarily controlled by, Russia or the United States. It is to China’s strategic benefit if it succeeds in decreasing its dependence on trade routes that can easily be disrupted by other great powers. The greatest relevance of the Balkans peninsula at this time relates to the port of Piraeus in Greece, which is the main Mediterranean base of China’s largest shipping company, COSCO Shipping. China’s involvement in Piraeus may develop into a greater Chinese role in trade, finance and manufacturing throughout the Balkans and Central Europe. This would then further strengthen China’s interest in developing the Black Sea region as a part of the China-Central Asia-Europe trade corridor.
The new silk road will increase China’s influence in the region. This could further complicate the unstable relationship between Russia and the West. In the longer run, Sino-US and/or Sino-Russian geopolitical competition could destabilize the region. However, China is careful to avoid this outcome, and its growing influence also provides new opportunities for Russia, the EU and the US to work with China towards regional stability. The European Union needs to signal clearly that it favours regional development and that it is open to cooperating with China to this end. If OBOR can contribute to the economic development of the Balkans and Black Sea Region then the EU should take an active approach that seeks to maximize this contribution within its strategic interests.