China is considering to build a canal trade route from Greece to Europe through the Balkans in order to expedite the shipping of goods.
This would be a part of China’s $3 trillion Belt and Road initiative to bridge the infrastructure gap along trade routes to Africa, Asia and Europe.
This also signals the Asian giant’s ambition to play an even more prominent role in global affairs.
China has already established a strong foothold in the Mediterranean by owning Greece’s main port, the Piraeus Port, through COSCO.
COSCO has earmarked the Piraeus Port to be the most important in Europe and is investing hundreds of millions of euros in expanding its facilities.
However, the port to be used in case the Balkan canal trade route materializes will be the Thessaloniki Port.
An ambitious project
The plan that is under consideration by China is a vertical link between the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river, and Greece’s northern Aegean coast, namely the Thessaloniki Port.
The navigable route will go via the rivers Morava and Vardar/Axios, thus reaching central Europe without circumnavigating the Mediterranean.
The plan is to expand the rivers in certain parts so that the big freighters can pass through.
The potential project would bring about radical changes to the transportation options in the wider region European region.
However, the plan to build a canal trade route to central Europe through the Balkans requires bilateral agreements with all countries involved.
Specifically, China has to agree with Greece, Serbia, North Macedonia, as well as Central European countries.
If indeed China’s canal trade route materializes, Balkan and Central Europe countries would get goods cheaper and faster, while shipping exports will cost less as well.
At the same time, Balkan countries would be able to ship local products to western EU markets easier, faster and cheaper.
Development of what China views as the “new Silk Road” – involving land, air and sea – is already in progress and the utilization of existing rivers could not be left out of the wider plan.
The waterway would offer a much faster and lower-cost route for cargo destined for Europe from the East.
Development of the new waterway would offer a transportation link from the East Mediterranean directly to the heart of Europe, via the Axios/Vardar, Morava and Danube rivers.
Cargo would no longer need to be shipped all the way to Gibraltar and from there up to the Netherlands, or be held up in the narrow Bosporus strait.
Some early studies have indicated that such a route would work out to be three-and-a-half days faster compared to the existing option via Rotterdam.
Cargo from the Dutch port reaches the Danube River, running horizontally, from Central Europe, in Germany’s southwest, to the Black Sea, at a point on Romania’s east coast.
This is an attractive prospect for China and other East Asian countries, which export millions of containers to European markets and Russia each 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 the river canals is 4 meters in depth and 28 meters in width.
Via Bosporus or Thessaloniki?
Currently, Europe-bound ships from China stop at the Port of Piraeus or Italy’s Port of Trieste. From there, goods are transported to Europe by truck, train or airplane.
But moving goods to Central and Northern Europe this way is costly and a long time is required for cargo to reach its destination.
So there are two options for China’s canal trade route: cargo ships to enter the Danube River from Bosporus or Thessaloniki.
The first option entails that ships from Asia will enter the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Strait and enter Europe from the point where the Danube River flows into the sea.
From there, freighters can cross the Danube River to reach the major European ports like Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam.
Using the Bosporus route would require a ship to travel 1900 km (1180 miles) to reach Belgrade.
However, if ships go to the Port of Thessaloniki and connect to the Danube via the Axios-Vardar River, they will have to travel 1000 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 building a canal 88 km long (55 miles).
At a speed of 10 km an hour, cargo vessels from China need eight days to reach their European destination. Using the canals, it would take a little over four hours.
China’s canal trade route through Europe is not only far more cost efficient, it is also environmentally safer as well.
Fuel costs for the number of trucks, trains and/or planes required to carry the goods across Europe will be slashed considerably, let alone that pollution will be limited.
An idea that is almost two centuries old
The idea to connect the Mediterranean with the Danube actually goes back to the 1840s.
In 1907, the United States established an engineering commission to see 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 ice.
Today, the entry 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 point of entry to the Danube and the rest of China’s canal trade route.
Such a move would inevitably diminish Turkey’s geopolitical power in the Mediterranean, while at the same time would give Greece an advantage as an international shipping hub.