China and the Budapest-Belgrade Railway Saga

Andreea Brinza | 30 April 2020

In November 2013, at the Bucharest Summit of the 16+1 initiative, China, Hungary, and Serbia talked about building a high-speed railway that would connect Belgrade to Budapest (respectively the capitals of Serbia and Hungary). The announcement happened just one month after Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and one year after China inaugurated the 16+1 mechanism with 16 Central and Eastern European states (it was later expanded to the 17+1, with the addition of Greece). The Budapest-Belgrade railway quickly became the 16+1’s flagship project and the BRI’s most important European project. Nonetheless, almost seven years later, the saga still isn’t over and the railway has attracted a number of misconceptions over the years.

While the railway was proposed in 2013, the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) one year later, during the Belgrade summit of the 16+1 initiative. The design details were settled in 2015. Construction itself would prove to be more tricky.

The route is not only a Belt and Road bridgehead in Europe, but its final destination, the Port of Piraeus in Greece, aims to enhance China-Europe commerce. As part of the Land-Sea Express Route, the Budapest-Belgrade railway became the flagship of the BRI in Europe and it is seen by Beijing as the aorta of the China-Europe land-sea fast intermodal transport route — which functions today thanks to the old railways that link Piraeus port with Budapest. In 2009, COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company), a Chinese shipping company, acquired the license to operate Piraeus’ Pier II for a period of 35 years, together with the permission to build a third pier. In 2016, COSCO bought a 67 percent stake in Pier I from Piraeus Port Authority S.A., the Greek company that operated the pier. COSCO has extremely successful in operating the port over the past decade, and since 2009 Piraeus port has been the commercial anchor of many Asian companies in Europe, functioning as a hub for importing their products to Europe. The Budapest-Belgrade railway, which should later be extended to Piraeus, aimed to build on that success.

Thus, building 350 kilometers of railway that could allow a speed of 200 km/h became the most important Chinese project in Europe.

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This article has been published by Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.

Photo Credits: A station on the current Budapest-Belgrade railway (Wikimedia Commons/Orjen)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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