The focus of this article is South-East Europe (SEE) in the context of the main Chinese intiatives 16+1 and B&RI. 16+1 and B&RI have become principal tools of China’s foreign policy in larger European context. From a European geopolitical perspective the region of South East Europe has always been chalenging to analyse. South East Europe (also historically defined as the Balkans) falls with the realm of the Wider Black Sea Region (which encompasses both the SEE, litoral Black Sea area and South Caspian Basin). South East Europe is where one of the prospective B&R economic corridors (Eurasian Land Bridge Economic Corridor) passess through. The region is one of the linking points of 16+1 China-CEEC Cooperation Platform and B&RI.

European integration of the SEE is believed to be an indispensable for stablization and socio-economic advancement of the whole region. The forthcoming BG presidency of the Council fo the EU has identified European integration of Western Balkans as one of its priorities. It is believed that this would bring strategic stability to the region which in turn would be benificial for the realisation both 16+1 and B&RI (would create favourable conditions for Chinese investement in the region). Bulgaria’s expert community regards both Chineses intiatives in the context of EU-China strategic parternship.

At the start of 16+1 Beijing regarded CEE as a common geopolitical entity within larger EU. Gradually Chinese leadership evolved in its perception about CEE. It acknowledged emergence of of sub-regional geopolitical dynamics with the CEE.

Beijing’s initial strategic perception of the CEEC as a common region is now under reassessment. 16+1 Riga Summit (2017) witnessed the adoption of the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas Ports cooperation in which Beijing indirectly recognized the sub-regional divisions within the region of CEE (the Baltic states; Visegrád group; the South East Europe). The CEEC is heterogenous with regard to China since 16 CEEC (having different potential, developmental needs and interests) compete on their own for the Chinese attention and investments.

So far the Chinese strategic approach has been focused on utilization of the Western Balkan route (Port of Piraeus, modernization of rail connection Belgrade-Budapest, etc). The Eastern Balkans through TEN-T “Orient” Corridor connects Black and Baltic Seas (as well as Ionian and Aegean Seas) and through TEN-T “Rhine-Danube” Corridor connects Central Europe with Black Sea.

We believe that the Eastern Balkan route (namely Eurasian Land Bridge Corridor, BS corridor connecting SEE with Central Asia via South Caucasus) offers promising alternative and possibility for synergy to the chinese cooperation plans.

16+1 Suzhou summit (2015) was an important step in terms of infrastructural synergy with OBOR in the CEE context. Beijing signed two sets of bilateral MoU with 5 CEE countries (Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia). The first agreement was related to jointly advancing land and maritime dimensions of the New Silk Road through policy coordination, connectivity (road & rail), trade, investments, and humanitarian exchange. A special emphasis is to be placed on further synergizing the development of regional transport infrastructure with B&RI plans. The second agreement laid the principles of port and harbor industrial cooperation. Unarguably, B&RI land and maritime connectivity would be impossible without setting up necessary logistics.

As Prof. David Gosset from Academia Sinica Europea in Shanghai noted during the Fifth Euro-China Forum held in Sofia, Bulgaria is a key component of the Black Sea system. This system has been traditionally connecting the two edges of Eurasia. It was a part of Marco Polo’s journeys on the Silk Road. Nestorian Monk Rabban Sauma, envoy of China’s Emperor, also crossed it. The Black Sea system plays an important role in the construction of more cooperative Eurasia.

B&R concept revolves around intercontinental connectivity by land, sea/river and air transportation networks. Of course this grand project is not only about infrastructure, but also about global economic development, investments, trade, technology and people-to-people exchange. This was widely discussed during the “Black Sea Dimension of B&R Initiative” conference organized by BDI and IES to CASS, held in September 2017 in Sofia.

Regarding the transport sector, one of the routes that could be implemented in China’s Eurasia connectivity strategy is the existing connection between Poti/Georgia and Burgas/Bulgaria seaports.

The interlinkage of Bulgarian seaports to another transport corridors in SEE is being strategically addressed at present. Transport, Information Technology and Communications Minister of Bulgaria Ivaylo Moskovski has signed Memorandum on Rail Transport Corridor with Infrastructure, Transport and Networks Minister of Greece Christos Spirtzis.

This MoU underlines political willingness of Bulgaria and Greece to set up a transport corridor on the Aegean – Black Seas – Danube axis. Named “Sea2Sea”, the project’s concept includes joining the  ports of Thesaloniki, Kavala and Alexandropolis (from the Aegean Sea),  Burgas, Varna and Ruse in integrated railway network. Setting up a multimodal corridor, which is in compliance with the core Trans European Transport Network (TEN-T), in particular, the Orient Corridor. This increases the chances to secure funding for the project from the Juncker Plan and European Investmen Bank.  This is also in line with with Riga Summit Guidelines (Article 5 on Connectivity cooperation and Article 6 on Cooperation in industry, energy, science and technology) under which CEEC and China leaders seek greater synergy between Belt and Road Initiative, development strategies of CEECs and EU’s Trans European Transport Network.

Bulgaria’s understanding for 16+1 and B&RI is to be intertwinted with EU-China Connectivity Platfrom and TEN-T.

Few of the important benefits of this corridor:

  1. Alexandroupoli has become a strategic port, which provides fast connection to Burgas and Varna and, according to the experts, the cost of the railway transport will be much lower in terms of dues.
  2. It will bypass the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits in Turkey and will reduce the travel time from 2 days to 6 hours.
  3. The connection between Ruse and Varna is important by itself because it will give linkage not only between the Seas but also to one of the main transport arteries in Europe – Danube river (as said earlier it is also part of the TEN-T. Another aspect that plays part regarding the implementation of Article 5 and Article 6 of Riga Guidelines because it will give cheap access for countries like Hunagry, Croatia and Serbia to the ports on Black Sea. The transport facilities are supposed to be built within 10 years.

Another important corridor that goes from Bulgarian Black Sea coast is the Pan European Corridor VIII. In this regard the recent development of the relations between Bulgaria and Republic of Macedonia could also be been seen as something positive. There is a political will to strengthen the ties between the two states which is articulated with the signing of Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation. This act was necessary and it will boost the infrastructure cooperation as well as other sectors. Most important – it is another step to finally start working on Corridor VIII.

This will link Black and Adriatic Sea via Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. Something that was too long postponned for different reasons, but will be of great benefit for the development of the countries on this East-West axis. During the meeting in July with Zoran Zaev Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Mrs. Ekaterina Zaharieva said that building Corridor VIII will be high priority for both countries.

It should be mentioned that last month during the third China-CEEC Cultural Cooperation Forum in Hangzhou, Bulgaria did the right thing (as other countries in 16+1 Platform) in supporting the establishment of a China-CEE Cultural coordination center in Macedonia. Albania, the other concerning party in this initative is also experiencing improvement in bilateral relations with Bulgaria.

In regard to hard infrastructure connections between Bulgaria and Serbia, a good boost in Bulgaria will give the Parliament voting for a launch of Toll Roads System, which should come in action in 2018. This will untie the hands of the goverment when they are proposing projects for big investors. Chinese companies have already expressed their interest in highway and railway construction in Bulgaria.

Getting back to Corridor VIII there could be seen some contradictions about its importance, setting-up and exploitation. There is a believe that the signed MoU with Greece in Kavala is to block the realisation of this project. But careful analyses of the known facts concludes that Sea2Sea and Corridor VIII are not mutually exclusive. In summary: The railroad system in Northern Greece is undeveloped , with many connections still waiting to be constructed. With some exceptions the system is not electrified and if not missing the railway is only one-way.

The situation of Railroad transport on Corridor VIII is as follows:

  1. Bulgaria is working on the modernization from Burgas to Sofia, with more than 2/3 of the distance being a two-way electrified line. After that, Gyueshevo should be upgraded and electrified from Radomir to the border.
  2. In Macedonia, new sections should be built from Kumanovo to Gyueshevo and from Kichevo to the border with Albania. These sections are much shorter than those of the corridor Egnatia. Kumanovo-Gyueshevo will be funded with money from the European Commission and the EIB. The remaining route from Kumanovo to Kichevo is for modernization.
  3. In Albania, the entire existing route from Drach to Ohrid Lake and the border is for modernization.

The analyses of the motorway transport on Corridor VIII leads to the following:

  1. At first sight, Greece has a significant advantage over Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia and Albania, because A2 route is entirely ready for the neighbors and next year is expected to complete the rehabilitation of Ormenio-Ardanio.
  2. On the other hand, if we analise, the highway route Bourgas-Sofia-Dupnitsa  is ready in Bulgaria, while Dupnitsa-Gyueshevo connection remains. To the west, there is a constructed route from Kumanovo to Gostivar and it is being built from Kichevo to Struga (Ohrid). Kumanovo-Gyueshevo remains, as well as Gostivar-Kichevo and the detour to Qafë Thanë and the Albanian border.
  3. In Albania the highway from Durres (Drac) to Tirana is ready and is being built next to Elbasan, which should soon be completed. It remains from Elbasan to Qafë Thanë.

Igoumenitsa is farrer to Bari and Brindisi (Italy) by sea than Durres. If the destination is southern Italy, at present the time along Corridor VIII is less than that of Egnatia. If the destination is Gibraltar / Atlantic, then the route from Bourgas to Kulata to Igumenitsa on Struma Motorway, even in terms of the still unfinished A3 route is faster on Corridor VIII in Bulgaria than on A2 in Greece. If the destination is the Suez Canal / Indian Ocean, you can still use Trakia and Struma Highways in Bulgaria to Thessaloniki and Athens instead of Egnatia.

A few quick words regarding other elements of Bulgarian-Chinese sectoral cooperation also in regard to implementing the Riga Guidelines:

  1. At the moment there is new concession tender for the Plovdiv Airport and the company that is the favourite to win is operated by Hainan Airlines. Тhe plan is to launch direct flight line to China for passengers and cargo.
  2. China National Nuclear Corporation is the second company after China General Nuclear Corporation that has conducted meetings with Bulgarian government in the face of the Prime Minister and expressed its interest in the construction of the second nuclear power plant in Bulgaria “Belene”;
  3. The interests of chinese investment companies have increased after the government decision to introduce the Toll Roads System there are ongoing talks for the building of the “Black Sea” highway (connecting Varna and Bourgas) and Sofia-Kalotina highway;
  4. Under Belt and Road Initiative the chinese giant Alibaba is considering to open a logistic hub in Bulgaria;
  5. A Tourist Information Center was opened in September 2017 in Shanghai which will contribute in implementation of the People 2 People cooperation aspects.
  6. At the China-CEEC Summit in Hungary in 2017, the CEEC and China voted positively for Bulgaria in its intention to host the next Summit in 2018. This decision comes at a key moment for the country and provides many opportunities, both for strengthening the bilateral relations between Bulgaria and China and for the multilateral relations of Bulgaria with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.


In Riga, the topic of connectivity prevailed over that of trade. The main focus was on maritime issues. The Riga Declaration broadly presents the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seaport cooperation initiative announced at the Suzhou summit in 2015. It assumes the development of ports, including those in the hinterland, as well as logistic hubs, economic zones and transport corridors. 16+1 seeks synergies with major initiatives and plans under EU-China strategic partnership and supports China-EU Connectivity Platform. EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda is in synrochronic action with 16+1 in many areas but the one on which this article was focused exclusively is the reaffirming of cooperation in transport & infrastructure based on development of interconnected infrastructure systems, cooperation in interoperability of logistics networks between Asia and Europe, maritime markets & routes and rail services. The same fields of interest are part of the Suzhou Medium Term Cooperation Agenda and the Riga Guidlines where the point is on strategies on connectivity networks on land, at sea and in the air between China and Europe in line with B&R concept, and in particular  the construction of a New Eurasian Economic Bridge Corridor, and extending transport connectivity to Western Balkans,  promoting cooperation in infrastructure development (roads, railways, sea-ports, airports, telecommunications), development of logistics sector (construction of cargo terminals, port-infrastructure,  industrial hubs).

The inclusion of Bulgaria in China’s Eurasian connectivity strategy (New Eurasian Land Bridge Corridor) could be made on the following options: inclusion of Bulgaria in planned high speed rail connection starting from North-West China via Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, via Bosporus to Bulgaria and further extension to Central Europe through Serbia and Hungary.

Also the inclusion of Bulgaria in a rail and sea based route starting from China via Central Asia, then crossing the Caspian Sea to reach Azerbaijan and continuing to Georgia, then passing through the Black Sea to the Port of Varna/Bulgaria with deviation to Rousse and Geurgevo/Romania container terminals where the Danube River route can be further utilized for cargo transportation to Central Europe. The development of the Sea2Sea project should be watched closely in relation to the financing of the rehabilitation of the important Varna – Ruse connection.

The opinions and theses covered by the article are personal and do not involve the Diplomatic Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs respectively.