Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ presence at the Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing Friday and Saturday, in addition to Greece’s joining the initiative of 16 countries of Eastern and Southeastern countries with strong relations with China, shows how far Greece has come since 2009. That was when China’s state-owned Cosco took over part of Piraeus’s container port. That initiative by a New Democracy government was opposed bitterly by other parties and vested interests. However, despite the obstacles that they set up, PASOK and SYRIZA contributed toward a closer relationship with China.
Relations may be strengthening but nothing is simple. We see this in the proposed development of the port of Piraeus after Cosco bought a 51 percent stake in it in August 2016. The Chinese Embassy is concerned that the investment may be affected by the recent ruling of the Central Archaeological Council that the whole area is an archaeological site. The government promises that the problem will be overcome – the same government that froze the privatization process when it came to power in 2015 and, when in opposition, opposed all privatization in principle. The way that Cosco has handled the Piraeus Container Terminal shows how serious the company’s intentions are: In 2010 they moved 880,000 containers, in the first quarter of 2019 they set a record of 1.25 million.
Aside from complications in Greece, China’s global activities have provoked concern elsewhere. Regarding Greece, the European Commission is watching Chinese investments in energy as well as some practices in Greece’s provision of Golden Visas and residence permits to investors in real estate. Prime Minister Tsipras was careful in his speech at the meeting of the 16+1 on April 12 to declare that he respects the “rules and procedures of the European Union” with regard to China. In other countries, China has provoked concern through its investments in strategically important sectors and through loans for great infrastructure projects that could become debt traps.
The problems and concerns are to be expected and are, to a great extent, a symptom of the United States’ withdrawal from the center of world affairs, of China’s new, grand ambitions, and of the European Union’s inability to play a leading role, preferring to watch and worry, to issue warnings and fines.
Greece may have found itself on a silk road by chance. But it is up to the Greeks to make good use of the opportunity. Most of our politicians are aware of this now. To succeed, though, they will have to overcome the obstacles that they themselves usually set up.