- A Sea of Opportunities: The EU and China in the Mediterranean
Asia’s new economic and political strength—particularly China’s—and its increasing economic ties with Europe are giving the Mediterranean region an opportunity to once again be the place in the world where “things happen.” This opportunity is amplified by rapid economic growth in Africa, the countries’ of which, in the past decade, have exploited the discovery of new oil and gas fields and developed such sectors as mining, fishing, and agriculture. Now Africa is a key supplier to China and a growing market for Chinese and European goods.
However, this new Mediterranean centrality should not be taken for granted. New economic links, trade, and investments must be built, because the Mediterranean Sea is not the only way to link Europe and Asia. Mediterranean ports face tough competition from Northern European ports, and this could become even tougher with a potential permanent opening of a new sea route through the Arctic. Today this route is opened for a few weeks per year, but if expected climate changes continue, this route could become profitable. Another source of competition that could arise is from the new railways that are connecting and expected to connect China and Europe. Today the number of rail routes is still small, but that could increase in the near future thanks to new railway tracks and new agreements among the countries crossed by the railway networks. These routes will be a competitive threat to the economies of the Mediterranean region, especially for the transport of [End Page 1] high-value-added goods that need a shorter time to market. How will Europe face these challenges?
The recent enlargement of the Suez Canal allows the passage of almost any of the world’s largest operating container ships. This has been a very important event and increased the performance of all Mediterranean ports. However, there are very few ports that can handle ships that carry seventeen thousand containers. These ships need to be able to stop in more than a few ports to maintain profitability. There is also a need for modern logistics infrastructure and for assembly and production sites in ports that are fast-handling and fast-customs-clearing operations. An even smaller number of ports will be able to compete in the future, due to the economies of scale that characterize this industry, and the selection process will influence the economic performances of entire countries. The substantial growth of Port of Piraeus activities after its acquisition by China Ocean Shipping (COSCO) tells us that the new competitive process has already started.
In order for this process to take full shape and provide the necessary long-term stability for the region, we need both a peaceful evolution of the political environment of the Mediterranean and Middle East and stronger relations between Europe and China. The economic links between Europe and China need to be stable and durable in order to create a safe and efficient Mediterranean Sea. Investment in infrastructure such as ports, highways, and railways, as well as in productive activities that can benefit from the new infrastructures, needs a stable environment. China learned this lesson when it suffered from the collapse of its investments in Libya during the Arab Spring.
It is clear that China and Europe share the same interests in stabilizing the Mediterranean. Of course, for Europe there are additional interests, consequent to the historical links and the geographical proximity to Africa. Among other things, Europe has to take account of the hundreds of millions of African citizens who are trying to migrate to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa in order to escape poverty. Without a stable North Africa, an increasing tide of migrants will try to come to Europe, putting their own lives in danger and creating increasing difficulties for recipient European countries. China, on its side, needs stability in this area not only to guarantee its own investments and some of the most important destination markets for Chinese goods but also to avoid political disruption that could easily move to areas [End Page 2] much closer to domestic Chinese interests. For example, a destabilization of the sphere of...