Chinese ambitions could make Balkan peninsula a key area

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, has the potential to transform the Black Sea region in terms of development and economic integration.

China Railway Express | Antony Guppy

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which involves Beijing underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe, has the potential to transform the Black Sea region in terms of development and economic integration barring geopolitical competition between the big powers in the area, Frans Paul van der Putten, a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, has told Kathimerini English Edition.

The Dutch expert, who is speaking at the Balkans & Black Sea Cooperation Forum in Serres, northern Greece, believes that China’s ambitious foreign policy can work in favor of the long-troubled Balkan peninsula as Ekathimerini reported.

“The region could well transform from being Europe’s periphery into a more centrally positioned part of the integrated Eurasian economic zone that China envisions,” says van der Putten, who also sees a role for Greece’s northern port of Thessaloniki.

How is antagonism between the West and Russia in the Black Sea region affecting China’s ambitions in light of its new Silk Road initiative?

Because of Russia’s strained relationship with the West it seeks friendly relations with China in order to avoid becoming isolated. This makes it easier for China to expand its economic influence in Russia’s neighborhood, including the Black Sea region.

Still, China needs to proceed with caution. In Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization acts as a mechanism to limit geopolitical competition between China and Russia, but no such institution exists with regard to the Black Sea region.

At the end of 2013, Russian media and experts were highly negative about Chinese plans for turning Crimea into a major hub for the new Silk Road initiative. While the subsequent annexation of Crimea was primarily related to Russian antagonism towards the West, this also disrupted a major port construction project on the peninsula that was to be financed by a Chinese company.

Can the Balkans ever become an integral part of the global economy?

Under its new Silk Road initiative, China aims to turn the Balkans into a major transit region for China-Europe trade. This brings with it new opportunities for infrastructure development, logistical activities and manufacturing.

To what extent these opportunities can be utilized depends on many factors, but the region could well transform from being Europe’s periphery into a more centrally positioned part of the integrated Eurasian economic zone that China envisions.

Could the port of Thessaloniki, set to be sold to a German-led consortium, fulfill its potential of serving the Balkan countries and the Black Sea region?

Thessaloniki can benefit from the overall Chinese approach to the region, which is aimed at bringing increased cargo traffic and tourists from China, investments in infrastructure and economic development across the Balkans and Black Sea region.