China’s new Silk Road to Europe

China is laying the groundwork for a new Silk Road to Europe, holding out the promise of lucrative investments to a continent limping toward economic recovery – despite the ideological gulf with the West. Ahead of a furious row this week over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a dissident academic jailed by Beijing, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao completed landmark visits to Greece, Italy and Turkey. The accompanying business deals further extended the Asian powerhouse’s influence in Europe. In Rome on Thursday, Wen sealed agreements worth 2.25 billion euros ($3.13 billion) including solar power and broadband Internet projects. He pledged to more than double trade to $100 billion by 2015. A day later in Ankara, the Chinese premier signed another batch of contracts, including an agreement for the joint construction of 4,500 kilometers (2,700 miles) of Turkish railway. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan styled the project «a new Silk Road,» a reference to the centuries-old trade network that has linked the Asian and Mediterranean worlds since antiquity. To Greece, deep in the grip of recession and struggling to fill the gaping hole in its finances with a draconian austerity program, Wen promised to buy Greek bonds as soon as the debt-hit country returns to markets. «China has always attached great importance to its relations with the European Union,» says Wang Liqiang, a Europe researcher in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. «Helping Greece to the extent of China’s ability will prevent contagion of the debt crisis to the rest of the euro area,» he told AFP. Chinese shipping giant Cosco is already expanding container facilities at the main harbor, Piraeus, just outside Athens, where it was awarded a 35-year lease two years ago. During his visit to Athens on October 2 – the first by a Chinese prime minister in 24 years – Wen said the number of containers through Piraeus would rise this year to 800,000 and reach 3.7 million by 2015. «The merchant marine is an important sector of cooperation between the two countries because 60 percent of crude oil is imported in China on Greek boats and 50 percent of Chinese merchandise is transported on Greek boats,» he added. Greece has the largest merchant fleet in the world. It also has one of Europe’s most troubled state rail operators, currently 10 billion euros in the red. The Greek government intends to break up the company and hopes to attract interest from Chinese investors. Some commentators have observed that China’s involvement in Greece is the most sweeping by a single country since the Marshall Plan, the United States aid package that helped rebuild the country after the 1946-49 Greek civil war. Others view that investment differently: Radio Netherlands Worldwide discussed the prospect of Greece becoming «China’s first colony in Europe,» while Asia Times spoke of a «dragon-tailed Trojan Horse.» The Chinese premier’s trip also saw stormy talks in Brussels where he rebuffed European pressure to raise the value of the yuan to right global trade imbalances. Wen argued that such a move would bankrupt many Chinese companies. As the Chinese premier returned home, a diplomatic row broke out when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, prompting renewed Western calls for his immediate release. Liu was sentenced last December to 11 years behind bars for subversion, following the 2008 release of «Charter 08,» a manifesto for reform signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals, academics and writers. China responded furiously to the award, calling it «blasphemy» and summoning the Norwegian ambassador to warn that the decision by the Oslo-based Nobel Committee would damage relations.

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