Ambitious investments in transport and trade projects and modern maritime and land infrastructure to connect Asia, Europe and Africa, imitating the ancient Silk Road, have been discussed in Beijing at a meeting of senior officials from more than 100 countries, with 30 presidents and prime ministers. Slovakia is represented by Slovak Economy Minister Peter Žiga.
The meeting was opened by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who announced an investment of $124 billion in the project called ‘One Belt, One Road’, which involves major reconstruction and modernisation efforts in transport infrastructure, including railways, transhipment points and ports.
The project has been backed by senior figures such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Czech President Miloš Zeman and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Slovakia has had a long-term interest in this major investment plan, mainly in terms of investments in rail transport, including transhipment points and other Chinese investment activities.
“It’s a historic opportunity, viewed as the project of the century,” said Žiga as cited by the TASR. “Everything indicates that the Chinese side and other important states such as Russia have a strong interest in launching a ‘new Silk Road’. Even though the details still haven’t been released, it seems that the question is actually only whether the project will take place with us or without us.”
Talks with the Chinese on the issue should continue soon, in line with a concept for developing Slovak-Chinese relations approved by the Slovak Cabinet last month.
Planned extension of the broad-gauge rail line
A plan to extend the broad-gauge rail line from eastern Slovakia to Vienna, to enable the smoother transport of goods from China via Russia and the Ukraine has been on the table in Slovakia for several years but so far even a feasibility study for the project, estimated at €6 billion, has not been completed.
“Certainly it is possible to build one logistics centre near Košice where the existing broad-gauge rail line from Russia now ends,” Žiga told the public broadcaster RTVS on May 14. “And of course, we also have a memorandum of cooperation between four countries in which we talk about extending the broad-gauge rail line maybe even to Austria.”
Peter Baláž from the University of Economics in Bratislava is sceptical about extending the broad-gauge rail line pointing to problems that such a project might encounter in Slovakia, TASR reported. He gives, as an example, the building of the ring road around Bratislava by a consortium of companies led by the Spanish firm, Cintra. The project is late as the state has failed to purchase all the land under the future D4 highway and the R7 dual carriageway and hand it over to the consortium.
Baláž estimated that the extension of the broad-gauge rail line would thus last several years. The question also is whether the Chinese would actually be interested in it, as their southern arm of the railway line from China will end in Budapest.
“Why should they spend billions of euros on such a project?” asks Baláž, adding that Slovakia has not tried hard enough to win the Chinese interest.