The Silk Road – the road from the Mediterranean Sea to China

The West is drying its oars: The Mediterranean Sea is occupied by China

The Silk Road Initiative means a lot to Beijing

BESA Center Forecast No. 900, July 22, 2018

The One Belt, One Road initiative has two components: “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative” (SSRI). The aim of this initiative is to connect China and Europe by land and sea routes. The initiative is Beijing’s most ambitious integration project to date and represents the core of China’s foreign policy. The goal of SBSI is to build faster maritime routes in order to increase trade along the entire Silk Road, which will connect Asia with Europe and Africa.

As part of the strategic scheme of the SBSI, China has been buying up rights to develop and operate a network of ports stretching from southern Asia to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and even South America. As the Financial Times reports, China has spent billions of dollars to expand this port network in order to secure its maritime route system and establish itself as a maritime power.

One of the most important parts in the whole system of international trade maritime routes is the Mediterranean Sea. It is the central part of maritime trade routes and represents the western end of the One Belt, One Road initiative. Given the strategic location of the Mediterranean Sea, China has begun to increase its presence in this region by acquiring, building, modernizing and expanding the most important Mediterranean ports and terminals in Greece, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey and Israel, as well as obtaining rights to manage them. Beijing intends to take advantage of the geographical proximity of the Mediterranean Sea to Europe to turn it into the main distribution hub for Chinese goods destined for the EU, China’s largest trading partner.

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Increasing economic ties between China and Europe offer the Mediterranean an opportunity to regain its leadership position in international trade. The recent modernization of the Suez Canal, the main transport route between Asia and Europe, has doubled its capacity and the flow of goods between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Larger ships can now pass through the canal, reducing transit times between Asia and Europe, making Mediterranean ports more competitive and attractive

However, access to the European market through Mediterranean ports, as well as maintaining the flow of vital resources – such as energy and other raw materials – from the Middle East and Africa, depends on the security and political stability of the Mediterranean region. Maintaining a secure geostrategic environment and ensuring geopolitical cooperation in the region are essential to the success of the construction and implementation of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative.

China is the world’s largest country in terms of trade in goods. China’s three maritime transport companies are among the world’s top ten container carriers, accounting for approximately 10% of global trade. Most Chinese goods are transported by sea, so Chinese ports are the main starting and ending points of international maritime routes.

China’s commercial ports are among the busiest in the world. Eight of the ten largest container ports are in the country, and the port of Shanghai is the busiest on the planet. China has the third largest number of ships owned by the country. It is the largest shipbuilding country, with a combined gross tonnage of about 30 million tons.

Beijing’s strategy in the Mediterranean is mainly to build and manage ports and railroads. The investments made for these purposes should be seen in the context of the broader infrastructure activities of the One Belt, One Road initiative. Investments in the development of maritime routes and railroads complement each other, as together they open up new trade links between China and the Eurasian-African zone. China has gradually built up its presence in the Mediterranean, investing in international logistics and distribution centers, as well as in infrastructure projects that have strengthened its position in the region.

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For example, Chinese investments in the ports of Piraeus, Ashdod and Haifa, in Port Said and in the “Suez Canal Corridor” project go hand in hand with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which links maritime and land routes towards Europe. “The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative should be seen as a driving force for economic and strategic interests in the Mediterranean, and as a platform from which China will increase its presence and influence in the region.

China is gradually becoming an increasingly influential economic, diplomatic and geostrategic power in the Mediterranean. China’s huge investments and mutually beneficial trade relations with Mediterranean countries increase Beijing’s stakes in regional affairs. But this also leads to a significant increase in threats to Beijing. Political instability and religious extremism in several countries in the greater Mediterranean region raises the question of whether Beijing will be willing to assume a leadership role – with all the responsibility that role might involve.

“The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative” will not be successfully implemented without bridging the gap between economic interests and the ability to protect those interests. Protecting investments in a region with extreme geopolitical volatility will be a major test of Chinese foreign policy in the coming years. At the moment, Beijing lacks a comprehensive strategy for regional affairs in the Mediterranean. Beijing prefers to deal with each of the countries in the region on a bilateral basis.

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China’s policy toward the region is still determined by economic factors, especially trade and investment. Beijing will have to abandon its strict adherence to the principle of non-interference, if it wants to obtain any benefits in the Mediterranean. At present, Beijing’s behavior in the region remains cautious – it tends to keep its head down and not noticeably change the current dynamics. Beijing still prefers to act judiciously and avoids getting involved in confrontational developments in the region.

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The author (Dr. Mordechai Chaziza) is a lecturer in Politics and Administration at Ashkelon Academic College, specializing in Chinese foreign policy.

Translation by Sergey Dukhanov .

The BESA Center’s foresight papers are published thanks to the generosity of Greg Rosshandler’s family.

Materials on China Today are produced with the support of the People’s Republic of China’s largest online publication, Jenmin Jibao newspaper, and with the participation of information partner Solidarność JSC.

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