China plans to build a trade channel connecting Greece to Europe via the Balkans in order to speed up the transport of goods.
It would be part of China‘s $ 3 trillion Belt and Road initiative to close the infrastructure gap along trade routes to Africa, Asia and Europe.
It also signals the Asian giant’s ambition to play an even bigger role in global affairs.
China has already established a strong foothold in the Mediterranean by owning the main Greek port, the port of Piraeus, via COSCO.
COSCO has named the port of Piraeus as the largest in Europe and is investing hundreds of millions of euros in expanding its facilities.
However, the port to be used in the event of materialization of the Balkan Channel trade route will be the port of Thessaloniki.
An ambitious project
The plan envisaged by China is a vertical link between the Danube, the second longest river in Europe, and the northern Aegean coast of Greece, namely the port of Thessaloniki.
The navigable route will pass through the Morava and Vardar / Axios rivers, reaching central Europe without circling the Mediterranean.
The plan is to expand the rivers in parts so that large freighters can pass through them.
The potential project would bring radical changes to transport options in the wider European region.
However, the project to build a trade channel to Central Europe through the Balkans requires bilateral agreements with all the countries concerned.
More specifically, China must agree with Greece, Serbia, North Macedonia as well as with the countries of Central Europe.
If indeed China’s canal trade route materialized, the countries of the Balkans and Central Europe would get cheaper and faster goods, while maritime exports would also be cheaper.
At the same time, the Balkan countries would be able to ship local products to western EU markets more easily, faster and more cheaply.
The development of what China sees as the “New Silk Road” – involving land, air and sea – is already underway and the use of existing rivers could not be left out in the plan. wider.
The waterway would provide a much faster and cheaper route for goods destined for Europe from the East.
The development of the new waterway would provide a transport link from the Eastern Mediterranean directly to the heart of Europe, via the Axios / Vardar, Morava and Danube rivers.
The cargo would no longer need to be shipped to Gibraltar and from there to the Netherlands, or to be held in the narrow Bosphorus Strait.
Some early studies have indicated that such a route would be three and a half days faster than the existing option via Rotterdam.
Cargo from the Dutch port reached the Danube, flowing horizontally, from central Europe, in southwestern Germany, to the Black Sea, at a point on the east coast of Romania.
This is an attractive prospect for China and other East Asian countries, which annually export millions of containers to European markets and Russia.
Some waterways in Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia will need to be widened and deepened.
The minimum required for a cargo ship to cross river channels is 4 meters deep and 28 meters wide.
Via the Bosphorus or Thessaloniki?
Currently, ships to Europe from China stop at the port of Piraeus or the Italian port of Trieste. From there, the goods are transported to Europe by truck, train or plane.
But moving goods to Central and Northern Europe in this way is expensive and it takes a long time for the cargo to reach its destination.
So there are two options for the China Channel trade route: freighters to enter the Danube from the Bosphorus or Thessaloniki.
The first option involves ships from Asia entering the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Strait and entering Europe from the point where the Danube empties into the sea.
From there, freighters can cross the Danube to reach major European ports like Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam.
Using the Bosphorus route would require a ship to travel 1900 km (1180 miles) to reach Belgrade.
However, if the ships go to the port of Thessaloniki and connect to the Danube via the Axios-Vardar River, they will have to travel 1,000 km (621 miles) until they reach Belgrade.
There is a third option, but it is close to being unrealistic: Freighters from Asia can connect to the Danube via Venice, but that would require the construction of an 88 km long canal.
At a speed of 10 km / h, Chinese freighters need eight days to reach their European destination. Using the channels, it would take a little over four hours.
China’s canal trade route through Europe is not only much more profitable, it is also safer for the environment.
Fuel costs for the number of trucks, trains and / or planes needed to transport goods across Europe will be drastically reduced, not to mention limited pollution.
An idea almost two centuries old
The idea of ââconnecting the Mediterranean to the Danube actually dates back to the 1840s.
In 1907, the United States created an engineering commission to look through the possibility of building this project.
However, the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), World War I and World War II, the Cold War put the project on hold.
Today, the entrance from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea is controlled by Turkey, and such a plan would have to go through the Ankara government.
Therefore, Thessaloniki would be the ideal entry point to the Danube and the rest of the Chinese Canal Trade Route.
Such a move would inevitably reduce Turkey’s geopolitical power in the Mediterranean, while giving Greece an advantage as an international maritime transport hub.