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Greece's Piraeus harbor
Image: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

From Beijing to Athens

Frank Sieren, Beijing / hg
March 30, 2015

Now that Greece is running out of money, it views Chinese investments as the lesser evil, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren. And Beijing is in a very good negotiating position.


The Greeks are working on all fronts: While Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is in Brussels negotiating for more time to pay back the country's debts, his deputy prime minister, Giannis Dragasakis, is searching for alternatives in the Far East to provide his boss with room to negotiate. The latter, together with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, went to Beijing for five days with a large delegation. The slogan for the journey was "the year of maritime cooperation" between Greece and China. But it could have been said in fewer words: It was about money.

Beijing knows, of course, that Greece is on the brink of bankruptcy. In the coming weeks, if there is no financial support in the form of money flowing from the European Central Bank, the EU or the International Monetary Fund into the empty government coffers in Athens, the country faces the risk of state bankruptcy at the end of April.

In this respect, Beijing was in a very good negotiating position. So good, that the Chinese government encountered the new Greek government's idiosyncrasies with composure. For several weeks, it seemed like the close economic ties between China and Greece would suffer a setback with the new government, although Chinese-Greek relations had been very good for many years. So good, that in January, before the elections, Beijing was not at all concerned about any policy adjustments by the left-wing opposition party, Syriza. The Chinese were mostly interested in their investment of several billion euros in the port of Piraeus (pictured above). The Chinese state shipping company, Cosco, which already holds long-term leases for two piers there, was among those favored to acquire two-thirds of the large port of Piraeus. It is the largest passenger port in Europe and the largest container port in Greece.

Both sides have room to negotiate

Under a privatization scheme, Greece's former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had begun leasing public enterprises or selling them to the highest bidders. The new Tsipras government rejected privatization as a means of budgetary reorganization and stopped the sale of the port right after the elections in January. In February, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called his Greek colleague, Alexis Tsipras, and asked him to support the harbor project. China's ministry of trade also intervened by making a plea to Greek authorities to remind them of how Cosco's interests could serve the Greek economy. However, the populist stand, "Don't sell out Greece," came across very well in Greece.

But the money's gone, and thus, the Chinese are in the superior position. Nonetheless, the Greeks still have room for negotiation. The project is politically important to the Chinese. Greece's access to the Mediterranean is an important part of the New Silk Road project initiated by Xi Jinping, China's State and Government head, as it provides an important hub, guaranteeing a Chinese-European connection between land and water.

Frank Sieren
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

Now, it is about more than just the harbor: It's an alternative to the European financial support - on better terms. For the Greeks, the Chinese are in the game more than ever, and they're playing a greater part in the future of Europe than ever before. Luckily, Beijing is interested in a strong Europe as a strong counterpart to the US.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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