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The Geopolitical Relevance of Piraeus and China’s New Silk Road for Southeast Europe and Turkey

Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael)

This Clingendael Report analyses the relevance of China's 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative for China's relations with Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the Balkan countries. The Greek port of Piraeus, in particular, is at the heart of China's strategic involvement in the wider region of Southeast Europe and Turkey. Piraeus is a major connector between the Maritime Silk Road (the maritime dimension of OBOR, which connects East Asia to Africa and Europe) and Europe. COSCO's acquisition of the Piraeus Port Authority in August 2016 accelerates the port's growth into a leading container, car and cruise harbour in the Mediterranean. In the Balkans, China is promoting the concept of a 'Land Sea Express Route', a north–south transport corridor that links Piraeus with Central Europe and Germany. Turkey and Cyprus, respectively, are part of the Silk Road's overland and maritime approaches to Greece. COSCO's long-term presence in Piraeus provides the Chinese government with a firm basis for its relations with Greece and facilitates further OBOR-related activities throughout the region. The Balkans, Turkey, and Cyprus all welcome investment from and trade with China, and China's economic relations with all the Balkan countries are increasing. While economic relations are mainly approached on a bilateral basis, the CEEC 16+1 platform provides an extra avenue for China–Balkans cooperation.

In the short term, the geopolitical impact of expanding Chinese interests in Southeast Europe and Turkey – for which OBOR has become the main engine – will probably remain limited to making regional countries somewhat less dependent on their relations with the European Union, the United States and Russia. In the longer run, however, China may develop into a more significant geopolitical actor in the region. As the New Silk Road develops, regional countries will become more dependent on China for their trade and investment relations. At the same time, the strategic importance of these countries for China will also increase. The greatest geopolitical significance, however, of Chinese activities in the region results from Beijing's relations with the other great powers at the interregional or global level. If China's security relations with the United States, Russia and the European Union, or some of these, become more strained and competitive in the coming decades, this may well have a negative impact on regional stability in the Southeast Europe–Turkey region.

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