President Xi Jinping announced the ambitious project in 2013. A brand new double trade corridor, he said, would reopen ancient channels between China and the West. These new and improved roads would, most notably, dominate parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern and Central Europe.
Officially called the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the action plan released in 2015 revealed how China planned to modernise the land routes (the Belt) laid down by ancient traders and also establish new maritime routes (the Road) across the seas.
Beijing’s line is that the two new trading routes will open-up global economic opportunities all while better connecting East and West.
The country’s critics are less certain and fear the move may be just one in a long list of Chinese propositions that, with each one, become more difficult to oppose.
More worryingly for the UK is that one of the overland routes proposes the construction of a canal that would pierce to the heart of Northern Europe and finish just 200 miles away from Britain.
In order to do this, China has in recent years aimed its focus on European ports.
China already owns the crucial Greek port of Piraeus, and has secured influence in Italy and its vital Trieste port after the country became the first member of the G7 to sign an investment agreement with it.
These strongholds have ensured that Chinese goods are distributed all across Europe, as well as to those Northern African nations on the Mediterranean Sea.
Yet, these countries are at the very southern tip of Europe, meaning lengthy train, plane and lorry travel is needed to transport them across mainland Europe.
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According to reports, China’s canal plans don’t stop there: the country has also started work on improving infrastructure like roads and rail in Eastern and Southern Europe in order to ramp up trade volume.
A Politico piece looking at China’s growing influence in Europe with its new Silk Road said: “Winning better access to EU markets is only part of the story, however.”
Jacopo Maria Pepe, analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations who has studied China’s involvement in the region, told the publication that China likely intends not just to send cargo to Europe, but from it as well.
Beijing’s longer term aim may be to build its own industrial manufacturing base to serve not only European markets, but also, according to a paper by Mr Maria Pepe, “new emerging markets along the Eurasian rim stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Middle East and further to India”.
Things in Europe appear only to be helping China in its ambitions.
In the waning days of 2020, the EU – pushed along by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – secured a mammoth investment deal with China believed to be worth £176billion.
By February this year, China had overtaken the US to become the EU’s biggest trading partner.
Trade between China and the EU was worth $709bn (€586bn, £511bn) in 2020, compared with $671bn (€569bn, £485bn) worth of imports and exports from the US.
More importantly, China is willing to pump cash and provide loans to countries like Serbia that have weak economies that the European Central Bank (ECB) or other development banks would never think of.
In Africa too, China has erected miles of road and railway in order to open up the continent.