International

The head of the dragon

New Europe, George Evgenidis - Political Affairs

It’s a rare occasion when Greek prime minister meets with the Chinese president twice in one week. Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis and China’s Xi Jinping met almost two weeks ago in Shanghai while the former was attending China’s biggest import-export expo and again met in Athens when Xi was in the Greek capital from November 10-12.

Xi’s visit was not just an act of courtesy that was meant as a diplomatic pay back for when Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos visited Beijing in May. Instead, Xi brought with him a large delegation of ministers and state officials for the visit.

All of this comes amid a major upheaval over the role the Chinese are playing in the overhaul of Athens’ port, Piraeus, which is at the forefront of China interest in Greece. Beijing first invested in Piraeus at a time when business deals with China were neither popular nor common.  Back in 2009, the conservative government of Kostas Karamanlis concluded the privatisation of the Port of Piraeus and the buyer was China’s state-owned shipping giant Cosco. Ever since, Cosco has made massive infrastructure investments into the port.

The acquisition of the Piraeus port was China’s biggest-ever investment in Greece and Cosco recently received approval for a new investment plan from the Greek authorities to build a new cargo terminal. During his visit, Xi didn’t hide the fact that China now has a major interest in further improving its bilateral cooperation with Athens regarding the port.

“We have to constantly upgrade our practical cooperation in all areas. Deepen the existing cooperation areas and expand the scale of investment with the work in the Piraeus port being the ‘head of the dragon”.

Xi’s expression is indicative of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions. Greece, on the other side, knows the limits of a potential closer relationship with China given the ongoing trade war that Beijing is currently locked in with the US and its major side-effects for the EU. Athens is, however, trying to promote bilateral relations in the economic field. The timing seems good, as there is significant interest from Greek businesses to open up to the huge, and potentially lucrative, Chinese market.

From China’s perspective, many of their major corporations are interested in investing Greece, particularly in the agriculture, tourism, and energy sectors.

16 agreements on the table

Xi’s visit with so many Chinese Communist Party officials was an opportunity to ink 16 bilateral agreements, some of which are of significant interest for the Greek government as they are all are part of the wider effort to deepen Sino-Hellenic economic cooperation.

Two Chinese banks will now open up in Athens, including the Bank of China, the fourth largest commercial lender in the world. ICBC, the fifth largest bank in the world, is also opening up a liaison office in Greece’s capital.

Furthermore, China’s market for certain Greek agricultural products would also open up through as a result of the signing of a bilateral agreement.

A memorandum of understanding on the up-to-date implementation of a master plan for Piraeus was signed by with Cosco, with both stating the willingness of both sides to overcome any obstacles that may arise and that all ongoing works would be completed in accordance with the aforementioned master plan. Major infrastructure projects in the Port of Piraeus will be financed by the European Investment Bank, a move that further underlines European support for the project.

The two sides also moved to formalise the interest of China’s State Grid energy giant to take part in a competition that is expected to be announced within the coming weeks regarding the electrical connection of the Greek mainland with Crete. The Chinese also signed an agreement on the MINOS 50MW project in Crete.

Both sides also updated the airline connection agreement between the two countries with direct flight routes increasing from 14 to 35. Mitsotakis also announced that Athens would be directly connected with Shanghai beginning next summer.

Though it might seem that some of the aforementioned projects will not immediately bear any fruit, Mitsotakis, seems to be confident that the repositioning of Greece on the investment map will be done incrementally while at the same time taking advantage of any potential large-scale investment benefit.

 

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