China is to boost its presence in the Balkans and funnel exports to Europe through a "corridor" linking Beijing with the continent via the Mediterranean.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Wednesday, China, Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia agreed to build a land-sea express link connecting Budapest, Belgrade, Skopje, Athens and the port of Piraeus in Greece, one of the largest container ports in Europe.
The corridor will be based on a rail link between Budapest and Belgrade, which will be built and financed by Chinese companies by 2017.
It will extend to Macedonia before reaching Piraeus, a key European entry point for Chinese products such as clothing, manufacturing machinery, household appliances and vehicle parts.
The four countries signed a cooperation framework agreement on Wednesday to streamline customs clearances along the route.
The initiative will provide more convenient sea access for Chinese exports to Europe and for European goods to China.
It will also transform Piraeus into a new hub for trade with the continent, in addition to helping landlocked Hungary and Serbia gain access to the most important transit port connecting the Balkans, Mediterranean and Africa.
Chinese shipping giant COSCO has a 35-year concession for two piers at Piraeus.
Zhao Junjie, a researcher of European studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the project will significantly boost the economic development of countries along the corridor, with the route going through an area with 32 million people and 340,000 square kilometers of land.
"It will become an alternative to the existing northern route connecting China with Europe by rail, which goes through the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Russia, Poland and (eventually) Spain," he said.
Premier Li Keqiang, who is on an official visit to Serbia to attend a meeting of 16 leaders from Central and Eastern European countries, said the express line is just a start and China hopes more lines will be built in the region.
"As China is determined to expand the economic pie for all, we will continue to push for free trade and convenient investment - the best medicine for a sluggish global economy," Li said.
He also said the express line will help to rebalance development in different parts of Europe and speed up European integration, which he believes will win the understanding and support of the European Union.
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban said China has shown tremendous courage to lead such a big project from afar.
He Maochun, director of the Economy and Diplomacy Research Center at Tsinghua University, said the corridor will help China to restructure its exports.
In the first 10 months of this year, bilateral trade between China and Central and Eastern European countries reached $50 billion, a 10 per cent year-on-year increase.
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