In the spring of 2016, China’s largest shipping company China Cosco Holding Co. (COSCO) acquired a majority stake in the Greek port of Piraeus. Scholars in China and Greece maintain that the move, coupled with a Chinese investment in the port in 2008, has bolstered Greece’s position as China's gateway to European investors and merchants, particularly since the country maintains one of the world’s largest merchant fleets. As Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in response to the COSCO investment, “Greece, which is the first stop in China’s way to Europe, can become a bridge between China and the West, between Asia and Europe.”
Carnegie–Tsinghua’s Shi Zhiqin moderated a discussion with Greek and Chinese experts on what opportunities exist to further Sino-Hellenic relations, particularly along China’s Maritime Silk Road. This event was co-sponsored by the Center for New Silk Road Strategic & Economic Studies in Athens.
- Assessing COSCO’s Expansion: COSCO’s acquisition of a majority stake in the port of Piraeus is the first step toward stronger and wider ranging areas of cooperation between China and Greece, a panelist argued. Discussants explained that while 51 percent is a notable majority, under Greek law, COSCO would need to acquire a 67 percent majority to make significant changes. This suggests that COSCO will make further investments into this project in order to extend its cruise ship facilities and acquire more valuable shares of the industry, one panelist noted. As COSCO’s process of expansion and collaboration with Greece continues, the Chinese company will also likely further strengthen Sino-Hellenic ties.
- A Mutually Beneficial Deal: While COSCO’s investment came at a time when the Greek economy was hitting its lowest point, this does not mean that this isn’t a mutually beneficial deal for both countries involved, discussants said. Greek-owned fleets currently represent more than 16.5 percent of the global fleet of merchant ships and comprise 50 percent of Europe’s fleet. As one panelist argued, Greece’s shipping magnate status is crucial for China since the former carries substantial amounts of China’s cargo, including vital primary resources like its oil imports. This deal, one panelist predicted, will give way to a powerful alliance whereby China and Greece will become better united strategically, to the benefit of both countries.
- Paving the Way for Deeper Cooperation: The COSCO deal is the biggest cooperative effort between China and Greece to date. It marks the beginning of a long, steady relationship, one panelist argued. Another panelist explained that the Greek government favors the continuation of maritime relations with China, and is hoping for deeper Chinese involvement. The panelists argued that collaboration can provide valuable opportunities for China’s future growth and development. At the same time, Greece welcomes China’s support and assistance, not only within the framework of the One Belt One Road initiative, but also on a more exclusive Sino-Hellenic basis in the hopes that bilateral trade will bring further prosperity to both parties, a panelist said.
- Implications for Sino-European Relations: Greece is China’s point of entry into central Europe, panelists explained. Strategically, Greece has an enviably stable position, relative to the political unrest in Eastern Europe and North Africa. This is an advantage, a panelist argued, that Greece is aware it possess and uses in its dealings with its Asian counterpart. With China closer to mainland Europe, panelists explain that cultural exchanges and cooperation are increasingly encouraged. The development of a railway line connecting the Greek port with central Europe could lead to a potentially stronger Chinese presence in the region, one panelist added, arguing that COSCO’s acquisition likely marks a momentous deepening of Sino-European relations. In this context, most panelists agreed that China’s relationship with Europe is on a fairly positive path.
- Development of One Belt One Road: All of the panelists agreed that China is manifesting a large and generous interest in the One Belt One Road initiative. China has offered financial support and assistance to the new Silk Road countries, a panelist said, but has also contributed to the modernization of outdated and somewhat inefficient infrastructure, which has helped with the development and strengthening of ties within the new Silk Road. Another panelist described the initiative as one that has both economic and political value.
Shi Zhiqin is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, where he runs the China-EU Relations program and the China-NATO dialogue series.
Leonidas Rokanas is the ambassador of the Republic of Greece to China. He previously served as the Greek ambassador to Tirana.
Panagiotis Laskaridis is the president of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation and vice president of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations.
Emmanuel Stantzos is the minister plenipotentiary for economic and commercial affairs at the Greek embassy in China.
Vasilis Trigkas is an economist and Onassis Scholar at Tsinghua University and a nonresident Handa Fellow at CSIS-Pacific Forum.
Song Xiaomin is a researcher in the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.