The great leap?
Ever since China’s head of state and communist party general secretary Xi Jinping announced his vision of a new Silk Road for the economic and transportational integration of Asia, Africa and Europe in autumn 2013, imaginations have been running wild in countries throughout the region. Nowhere more so than in Bulgaria, which is dreaming of becoming China’s gateway to Europe.
Bulgaria now appears to be one step closer to realising the great aim of becoming China’s gateway to Europe, thanks to the signing at the beginning of March of a cooperation agreement between Despred, a Bulgarian logistics company, and China’s state-owned Zhengzhou International Hub Development and Construction Company (ZIH). The agreement outlines plans for the joint operation of a railway and maritime shipping connection between the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou and the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas.
From Zhengzhou to Burgas
The idea is to route goods transports from China by rail through Kazakhstan in future, and then by ferry across the Caspian Sea to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. From there they will continue onward by train to the Georgian city of Poti, and then finally to Burgas on Despred’s ferry called Druzhba (friendship).
From there, the containers will travel on the final leg to Hamburg by blocktrain. The route will offer a southern alternative to existing trans-Eurasian railway connections between Suzhou and Warsaw as well as between Zhengzhou and Hamburg. Like the northern route, this connection will be somewhat more expensive than traditional transport by sea – but it will be considerably faster.
There are still some open questions, however, according to Despred’s Vasia Tsvetkova. «We’ve signed a preliminary agreement, but cannot provide any concrete information yet about when the service will actually go into operation and what it’s annual transport capacity will be,» she said, in response to a query from the ITJ. Despred, which is owned by the Sofia-based enterprise CSIF Holding, already operates a ferry service between the Black Sea ports of Burgas West and Poti.
China’s new Silk Road initiative – also promoted under the slogan «one belt, one road» – is not a clearly defined project for the revitalisation the traditional Silk Road. Rather, it is an outgrowth of China’s complex foreign and economic political expansion strategy, involving a diverse range of activities, from investing in transport projects in other countries to the takeover of foreign companies. To finance the programme, China has not only set aside USD 40 billion in its Silk Road fund, but has also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, together with numerous partner states, among them Switzerland, with a capital investment of USD 100 million.
Stations on the route
Projects in the ambit of the new Silk Road include undertakings for the economic and logistic development of the countries along the traditional Silk Road through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe. The road refers to a maritime Silk Road extending farther in the direction of Southeast Asia.
The Zhengzhou–Burgas service agreed upon in early March between Bulgaria and China is one of the first concrete examples of a new Silk Road project. To prepare the way for the new connection, a delegation of Chinese experts went on a fact-finding mission in February to gather information on the technical capabilities of the two Bulgarian Black Sea ports of Varna and Burgas. In the city of Varna, located farther north, the fact that Burgas is the port that ultimately won the contract to serve as the future arrival location of the new rail and sea connection is considered a painful defeat in the internal competition between the two Bulgarian Black Sea gateways.
While Burgas intends to become the gateway for Chinese goods into Europe, Bulgaria’s second-largest city of Plovdiv is striving to function as a kind of bridge. On the edge of the Thrakia industrial area there, China’s Hainan Longquanren Century Invest and Development Company started developing an industrial and logistics park last autumn, designed especially with Chinese companies in mind. This project, dubbed the Euro-Chinese economic development zone, is expected to provide additional impetus for economic exchanges between China and the European Union.