Looking to build his country’s growing presence in Greece, visiting Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on June 20 went to the port of Piraeus where the Chinese company Cosco has already taken over much of the operations.
It was the second day of a three-day visit, following the signing of $4.6 billion in business deals that brought a boost to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ hopes to lure more foreign direct investment to get Greece out from under a crushing economic crisis.
Ahead of the visit, Li underlined China’s interest in growing its influence at country’s main port with reports that Cosco wants to acquire 67 percent of the the Piraeus Port Authority, one of several state-controlled assets Greece has pledged to privatize under pressure from its international lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB).
Li stressed that cooperation between China and Greece is “mutually beneficial” while Samaras declared that Greece could become “China’s gateway to Europe, and the start of a European trade corridor between Europe and the Far East. Greece is keen to also lure more Chinese tourists as well as investors.
Chinese and Greek officials and entrepreneurs are expected to sign another $1.9 billion in what would be 19 deals, mostly in infrastructure, transport and energy, according to diplomats.
Earlier on June 20, Samaras and Li visited the Acropolis which the the Chinese leader described to to Greek reporters as “wonderful.” He was then due to go to Crete, a popular tourist spot for the Chinese. Samaras was to meet him on June 21.
The night of June 19, Samaras told reporters that Europe realizes that Greece is a natural link with China, which is also expected to buy more sovereign debt, the Athens News Agency reported.
Greece’s return to international bond markets in April showed that “the Greek people have the wisdom and ability to emerge from the crisis,” Li told a joint press conference with Samaras. When the Greek government next issues bonds, he said, “China will continue to be a long-term, responsible investor.”
Samaras said that “Greece can become China’s entry gateway to Europe, which can also serve as a starting point of an entire investments corridor for China, like the railway networks, linking the ports of Greece with the ports of Europe.”
The Greek Prime Minister, who visited Beijing a year ago, thanked Li for accepting an invitation to come to Greece this year. “He kept his word and a year later he is in Athens … because today we are securing a relation of friendship, stability and mutual respect, something that I consider very important and that the rest must realize very well,” Samaras said.
Li said, “It is my first visit to the southern regions, as Prime Minister of China. I feel comfortable in Greece, at at my home. Greece and China are ancient countries with a great culture – one shines in the East and the other in the West, with a great contribution to the development of mankind. There are many similar mentalities between Greece and China.”
The Chinese Premier showed keen interest in Piraeus. “We can promote the port of Piraeus to a hub that will be important for economic development. The Chinese economy has pressure this year, but it is continuing to develop with steady rates,” he said.
The visit also was seen as strengthening political ties and new prospects for shipping.
Among the key agreements signed on June 19 was one for boosting trade and investment cooperation, signed by Development Minister Nikos Dendias and his Chinese counterpart Gao Hucheng, as well as a deal for Chinese bank loans to go toward the construction of Greek ships at Chinese shipyards.
There were also deals aimed at boosting Greek exports of olive oil, wine and marble among other products, and for the construction of solar energy parks in Greece.
Three agreements co-signed by Merchant Marine Minister Miltiades Varvitsiotis foresee closer cooperation in the maritime transport sector in which the Chinese already have a strong foothold.
The newspaper Kathimerini said that according to sources, the exchanges between Greek and Chinese government officials behind closed doors were more than cordial, with Li reportedly describing Greece as “China’s most stable and faithful friend in Europe.”
Calling Li’s visit a milestone in turning the traditional China-Greece cooperation into a more substantial relationship, Chinese Ambassador to Greece Zou Xiaoli noted that the two sides would sign agreements and business contracts regarding trade, investment, finance, the ocean, technology, culture and quality inspection, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
Since the forging of diplomatic relations in June 1972, China and Greece have seen stable growth of ties and enhancement of political trust. In 2006, the two established a comprehensive strategic partnership.
Greece gave support to China in holding the Beijing Olympics, and to the Chinese cities of Beijing and Zhangjiakou in bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In 2011, when China evacuated its nationals from war-torn Libya and asked for help from Greece, Athens responded promptly, receiving the evacuees and providing them with food and accommodations.
Five years ago, just before Greece had to see what turned into two bailouts from the Troika for 240 billion euros ($327 billion,) then Chinese-leader Wen Jiabao vowed support for Greece and announced a set of measures to deepen bilateral maritime transport cooperation during a visit to the country.
Over the past two years, top government officials from the two countries have exchanged frequent visits and maintained close coordination on major regional and international affairs.
That included a deal that brought Cosco to Piraeus with the signing of a 35-year lease. Since Cosco took over, it has made giant strides in improving the port’s operation, increasing the annual handling capacity from 685,000 TEUs in 2010 to 2.52 million last year.
Ambassador Zou said the two countries will give priority to their cooperation in logistics, rail-sea and rail-air intermodal transport based on the development of the Piraeus port.
During the visit, Li will also attend a forum on the maritime cooperation between China and Greece and deliver a speech to expound China’s views on maritime issues.