By George N. Tzogopoulos
When Chinese shipping giant COSCO signed its first agreement to invest in the port of Piraeus in 2008, the future impact of this deal on the evolution of Sino-Greek relations could not be easily anticipated. Eight years later, the results are evident, the landscape clear and perspectives bright. There is no doubt that China and Greece are important partners, they are enhancing their strategic partnership – this year having its tenth anniversary – and are looking for new ways to further promote their bilateral cooperation.
In order to elaborate on new steps to forge Sino-Greek relations, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visits Beijing and Shanghai on July 2-6. He will hold special meetings with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, he will exchange views with leading Chinese businessmen and he will participate in business fora. The program of the Greek premier is certainly promising for the signing of new bilateral accords between the two countries at the economic, cultural and media levels.
More importantly, there could be no better circumstance for this official visit to take place. The involvement of COSCO – now known as China COSCO Shipping Group after its merger with China Ocean Shipping – in Piraeus has recently entered a new chapter. That is because the privatization of the Piraeus Port Authority has been typically and legally concluded. With a comfortable majority, the Greek Parliament voted in favor of the concession. 223 out 300 MPs gave their consent after a difficult parliamentary meeting which saw last minute modifications in the agreement document.
The success of COSCO in Piraeus is widely admitted. Numbers do often speak for themselves. 3,030,000 TEUs were transshipped in piers controlled by the Chinese company in the port of Piraeus in 2015 as opposed to 2,984,000 TEUs in 2014 and 2,520,000 in 2013. Surprisingly, this 1.54 percent increase from 2014 to 2015 happened in a year during which container transportation in the Mediterranean decreased and the number of Greek exports fell due to the political crisis in the country. A comparison with TEUs managed by the Piraeus Port Authority in previous years is also indicative and marks a slowdown. 293,353 TEUs were transshipped in the Greek part of the Piraeus port in 2015, 598,255 in 2014 and 644,055 in 2013.
China’s expanded presence in Piraeus will transform Greece’s biggest port into a trade hub, increasing turnover, creating new job positions, leading to future business deals among companies from all over the world and finally connecting Asia with Europe in a sustainable way. This is what has to be principally stressed. The recent privatization does not stop in the transaction itself and the payment of 368.5 million euros from the one side to the other but is the springboard for additional positive developments. The more the “Belt and Road” initiative passes through Greece, the better it will be for both as the “win-win” logic prevails. Towards this direction, the construction of the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route and the forthcoming privatization of the Greek Railway can play a constructive role.
Critical as it is, the privatization of the Piraeus Port Authority should not overshadow all other aspects of Sino-Greek relations. Tourism, real estate cooperation, imports and exports of products, other investments in areas such as telecommunication, construction and energy as well as shipping are also top on the agenda.
Culture deserves a special reference. China and Greece represent two of the most ancient civilizations of the world. This reality gives an emotional dimension to the bilateral relationship, which can increase common understanding, and is highly respected by political elites. It is not a coincidence that during his stay in Athens and Crete in June of 2014, Li Keqiang added a cultural aspect to his official visit. It is not a coincidence that Alexis Tsipras will devote a day to go to the Great Wall.
Public mobilization follows. People-to-people exchange is strengthened, more Greek people learn Chinese and more Chinese people learn Greek, bilateral or multilateral scientific projects are carried out, joint events are organized and media are cooperating in their day-to-day operations. At first glance, this does not seem as significant as the economic and political partnership. Nonetheless, elite actions and ideas are hardly sustainable in the long-term should they have no public support.
Last but not least, benefits of close Sino-Greek relations go beyond the interest of the two countries themselves, and even the economic, trade and business level. Greece – as a member of the EU – can possibly draw on its experience in cooperating with China and strengthen its international position by endeavoring to facilitate political communication between Brussels and Beijing. Although the European External Action Service (EEAS) is assigned to do so, there is always room for European countries – even small ones like Greece – to play a role. If this happens, it will be valuable for the implementation of the “EU-China 2020 Cooperation Agenda.” It will assist Europe to improve its understanding of China and help China to better approach Europe.