China is considering building a canal trade route from the Aegean Sea to the Danube River to connect Greece and Central Europe through the Balkans and speed up the delivery of goods.
It will be part of China’s $ 3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to bridge the gap in trade routes to Africa, Asia and Europe following the imposition of sanctions on Belarus. It also signals the Asian giant’s desire to play an even more prominent role in world affairs.
China has already established a strong position in the Mediterranean, owning the main port of Greece, Piraeus, through COSCO, which considers it the most important in Europe, and is investing hundreds of millions of euros to expand its capacity. However, if the trade route through the Balkan Canal is implemented, the port of Thessaloniki will become it.
An ambitious project
The plan, currently under consideration in China, is a junction between the Danube, Europe’s second longest river, and Greece’s northern Aegean coast, the port of Thessaloniki. The shipping route will pass through the rivers Morava and Vardar / Axios, thus reaching Central Europe without skirting the Mediterranean Sea. The plan is to widen rivers in certain areas so that large cargo ships can pass through them.
The potential project will radically change transportation options across the wider European region. However, the plan to build a trade route through canals to Central Europe through the Balkans requires bilateral agreements with all participating countries. In particular, China must come to an agreement with Greece, Serbia, North Macedonia, as well as with the countries of Central Europe.
China is seeking to connect the Danube River with the Aegean Sea in Greece. Credit: Klim Leuven / CC BY 2.0.
Advantages of the Aegean Sea – Danube Canal for China
If China’s trade route through the canals really materializes, the countries of the Balkans and Central Europe will receive goods cheaper and faster, and export shipments will also cost less. At the same time, the Balkan countries will be able to deliver local products to the western EU markets easier, faster and cheaper.
The development of what China considers the “new Silk Road”, which includes land, air and sea, is already underway, and the use of existing rivers cannot be excluded from the broader plan. The waterway will offer a much faster and more inexpensive route for goods bound for Europe from the east. The development of a new waterway will provide transport links from the Eastern Mediterranean directly to the center of Europe via the Axios / Vardar, Morava and Danube rivers. Cargoes will no longer need to be delivered to Gibraltar and from there to the Netherlands or detained in the narrow Bosphorus.
Some early research indicated that such a route would be three and a half days faster than the current option through Rotterdam. Cargoes from the Dutch port reach the Danube River, which flows from Central Europe in southwestern Germany to the Black Sea, on the border of Romania and Ukraine. This is an attractive prospect for China and other East Asian countries, which export millions of containers to European markets and Russia every year.
Some water routes in Greece, Serbia and North Macedonia will need to be widened and deepened. The minimum required for a cargo ship to pass through river channels is 4 meters deep and 28 meters wide.
Through the Bosphorus or Thessaloniki?
Currently, ships heading to Europe from China stop at the port of Piraeus or the Italian port of Trieste. From there, goods are delivered to Europe by truck, train or plane. But moving them in this way is expensive and it takes a long time for the cargo to arrive at its destination.
Thus, the Chinese canal trade route has two options: cargo ships enter the Danube through the Bosphorus or Thessaloniki. The first assumes that ships from Asia will enter the Black Sea through the Dardanelles and enter Europe from the point where the Danube river flows into the sea. From there, cargo ships can cross the Danube River and reach major European ports such as Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam.
To use the Bosphorus route, the ship will need to travel 1,900 km (1,180 miles) to reach Belgrade. However, if ships enter the port of Thessaloniki and exit 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 almost unrealistic: cargo ships from Asia can reach the Danube via Venice, but this would require the construction of an 88 km (55 mi) canal.
At a speed of 10 km per hour, cargo ships from China take eight days to reach their destination in Europe. Channel usage would take a little over four hours. China’s trade route through canals through Europe is not only much more cost-effective, but also safer for the environment. Fuel costs for trucks, trains and / or airplanes needed to transport goods across Europe will be significantly reduced, not to mention limiting pollution.
An idea that is almost two centuries old
The idea of connecting the Mediterranean with the Danube actually dates back to the 1840s. In 1907, an engineering commission was formed in the United States to consider building this project. However, the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), the First and Second World Wars, and the Cold War froze the project. Today, the exit from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea is controlled by Turkey, and such a plan must go through the government of Ankara, which has a difficult relationship with China.
Thus, Thessaloniki could become an ideal entry point to the Danube and the rest of China’s canal trade route. Such a move would inevitably reduce Turkey’s geopolitical power in the Mediterranean and at the same time give Greece an advantage as an international transport hub.
Another problem that has accelerated the idea of this route is the recent sanctions by the European Union in relation to Belarus, which will likely interrupt the railway route to Europe for a long time, and China’s ruined relations with Ukraine.
Related video: Watch a documentary about the Chinese community in Greece.