Only a few days after Greece became the 17th member of the Chinese initiative for Central and Eastern Europe – now called 17+1 – Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traveled to Beijing to attend the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. It was his third visit to the Chinese capital, after July 2016 and May 2017.
Sino-Greek relations have continued to flourish under the SYRIZA government – despite a serious crisis in the first six months of its administration. Cosco’s investment at Piraeus port is the head of the dragon of China’s interest in Greece. The conclusion of the privatization of the Piraeus Port Authority in 2016 paved the way for closer ties.
Respecting its obligations, which stem from the 2016 concession agreement ratified by the Greek Parliament, Cosco has proposed to further develop the port. The so-called master plan is ambitious and prioritizes construction works, logistics and the management of hotels and a shopping mall. The cruise sector, in particular, is subsequently expected to grow because necessary facilities for it to thrive will be improved, and several job positions will be created.
The plan for the development of the port of Piraeus has not yet been approved by Greek authorities, as bureaucratic obstacles are delaying the process. This is certainly a thorn in Sino-Greek relations, although a solution seems possible after Tsipras’ recent visit to Beijing. Of course, the urgency of the matter is clear. China will soon invest in other European ports – for example in Italy – and could seriously look for alternatives in its effort to link maritime and land routes.
It is not only about Piraeus port. The good momentum raises new opportunities for Greece and China. The collaboration between Copelouzos Group and China Energy has led to the formation of a consortium model with the know-how potential of winning tenders not only in Greece but also in Southeast Europe. A rising number of Chinese tourists are visiting Greece every year and Greek exports to China are increasing. Giving the keynote address in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China wants to import more from other countries.
If Greece systematically elaborates on a better marketing strategy, it will be able to further boost its exports by approaching specific Chinese regions. Academic cooperation is also strengthening. In July the author will organize a summer school with students from Yunnan University in Athens. More can follow after the establishment of a Belt and Road Studies Network last week in Beijing.
The European Union looks at these developments suspiciously; its concerns are exaggerated. Chinese investments in Greece only represent approximately 1 percent of their total number in the EU. There are many member-states – with Germany in the lead – that closely collaborate with China at the bilateral level, although they publicly consider the latter a “threat” to satisfy the demands of the European Commission.
All Greek governments have respected the European legal framework and have organized tenders before proceeding to privatizations. And in 2016 Cosco had no competitor because Maersk withdrew. More importantly, Greece had to sell Piraeus Port Authority as a bailout requirement, under pressure from its creditors.
Greece and China are on the same Belt and Road. But this does not mean Greece is prepared to challenge its traditional foreign policy orientation. The advancement of Sino-Greek ties is happening in a period during which bilateral relations between Athens and Washington are taking off to new strategic heights. It is not wise to confuse economic interests with geopolitical choices.
Dr George N. Tzogopoulos, director of EU-China Programs at the Centre International de Formation Europeenne (CIFE) and research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), was a delegate at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.