Is China’s bull courting Europe with a Trojan Horse in Piraeus’ port?
China’s president Xi Jinping just paid a three day visit to Greece, where Beijing has invested in the Port of Piraeus, seen by China as its prime economic foothold in Europe. But not all Europeans are happy with China’s increasing influence on the continent.
Xi concluded his visit on Tuesday with a tour of the Acropolis in Athens. According to the Ekathimerini newspaper, Xi ‘’expressed solidarity’’ with Greece on the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles,” referring to the 8 sculptures taken away by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin between 1801 and 1812 – never to be returned. The “Elgin Marbles,” now on display in London’s British Museum, are topic of a centuries old controversy between Greece and the UK.
Xi, using China’s own bitter memories of Britain’s 150 year long occupation of Hong Kong appeals to Greece’s feeling of indignation in an attempt to create a sentiment of solidarity.
But apart from a common adversary, and ancient history that shaped the world thousands of years ago, Xi claims that today, the two countries have still a lot in common.
"Both China and Greece see each other as natural allies in developing the Belt and Road," said Xi at the beginning of the visit aimed at deepening cooperation with Greece across the board, adding his desire to "keep the momentum going" and "reinforce" bilateral relations.
Greece is one of the backers of China's Belt and Road plan for a massive network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe that will see trillions invested in new infrastructure across 126 countries.
Greek and Chinese delegations signed over a dozen agreements, including an extradition accord, agricultural export deals and an agreement to open the first Bank of China branch in Athens.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China will also open a representative office in Greece, officials said.
The agreements signed Monday will "unleash potential in energy, transport and financial cooperation," Xi said.
"The road we open will soon become a highway," said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Elected in July, Mitsotakis has made foreign investment and privatisation a linchpin of his administration's policy to restore Greece's sluggish economy to growth after a gruelling 10-year economic crisis.
Greece has been building progressively closer trade relations with China for more than a decade, spearheaded by a 2008 deal by a previous conservative government to cede container terminals at the main port of Piraeus to Chinese shipping giant Cosco.
COSCO, the world’s third biggest container shipping company by volume, with over 43 billion Euro in revenue, has already invested some 600 million euros in Piraeus, creating 3,000 jobs.
In 2008 COSCO acquired Piraeus' two main container terminals on a 35-year lease. In 2016 it also took over the Piraeus port authority -- and the third remaining container terminal -- until 2052.
According to the official China Daily, “Representatives of local staff extended heartfelt gratitude to COSCO for providing them with job opportunities in the most difficult times during the Greek debt crisis. Thanks to the Chinese company, they now enjoy stable jobs and happy lives, the Greek employees told Xi.”
But critics say pay is low, and Chinese managers don’t approve of labour union membership.
Greece has also signed up to China's new "Belt and Road" project, a $1 trillion global investment programme aiming to forward Chinese goods to markets further afield.
Brussels is not happy about it. In September 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker introduced new investment screening measures for foreign state-owned companies that want "to purchase a European harbor, part of our energy infrastructure or a defense technology firm."
"It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so we can protect our collective security," Juncker said.
EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn is quoted as saying that Europe has to beware of Chinese “Trojan horses” Beijing creates by using its financial clout to get political sway over countries that aspire to join the EU, Hahn cited the example of a highway in Montenegro being built and financed by China that appeared to be so expensive that Montenegro had to cut down on its social security system in order to pay its debt to China.
And France’s president Emmanuel Macron has warned China repeatedly that France, and the EU, demand “reciprocity” and “fair trade,” with China, implicitly criticizing Beijing's sometimes opaque ways of striking business deals.
For Greece it may already be too late. In 2017, Brussels failed to unanimously back a statement condemning China's persecution of dissidents, because Greece blocked the resolution, calling the criticism of China "unconstructive."