An Old Friend from the East: The Revival of Sino-Greek Relations within the EU

Petros Liakopoulos encourages the EU to set aside its differences and adopt a new perspective toward Chinese investment in Greece. 

On January 20th 2006, as the Greek presidential jet was taking off from Beijing International Airport on its way back to Athens, a new era in Sino-Greek relations was quietly taking over. Then Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis had just signed a series of cultural, political and economic agreements with his counterpart Mr. Hu Jintao, effectively setting the stage for a decade of diplomatic and economic rapprochement between the two nations. On September 30th 2017 the first direct Air China flight from Beijing landed at Athens International Airport, carrying much more than hordes of excited Chinese tourists. The celebratory water cannon salute and the glamorous welcoming ceremony echoed a clear message throughout Europe: Sino-Greek relations are well and truly flourishing, despite the reluctance of some of Greece’s European partners.

The apparent “honeymoon” of Sino-Greek relations is, nevertheless, not confined to ceremonies and cultural agreements. In this case, numbers speak for themselves: the 2017 tourist season saw the number of Chinese visitors rise to 170 thousand, a 15% increase over the previous year. Additionally, the Chinese conglomerate COSCO has planned to invest an extra 500 million euros in and around the newly acquired port of Piraeus, which is expected to add a further 31 thousand much needed jobs. This investment boom began in 2009, when the soon-to-be bankrupt Greek government leased the Piraeus container terminal to COSCO. Despite the deepening financial crisis, Chinese investment in the port grew considerably, paving the way to an all-out sale of the entire port to the Chinese company in mid-2016. Even critics of the investment project will have to concede the astonishing economic results it has so far generated: in 2010, the port handled a total of 880 000 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs); in 2016, the total handling quantity reached 3.74 million TEUs. The impressive increase in handling capacity has been paired with a variety of additional infrastructure, ranging from parking areas to cruise ship terminals. The current Greek government led by Alexis Tsipras has, despite its initial skepticism, fully embraced Chinese investment, effectively turning the COSCO-Piraeus project into a privatization “poster boy”.

As Chinese investment further expands in the Greek energy and tourism sectors, European officials have been monitoring the situation with growing concern, particularly after Greece vetoed an EU statement on Chinese human rights abuses in June 2017. Similarly, a few weeks prior to that, Greece had lobbied to soften up the EU stance on the South China Sea dispute. In August 2017, Marietje Schaake, a Dutch European Parliament representative, expressed her concern regarding the growing Chinese political influence in Greece, a view shared by numerous European officials. This concern has, understandably, fallen on deaf ears, acting as a reminder of the disconcerting political reality facing the EU on the international stage. Greece has a lot to gain from China’s newly established One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative; the Chinese ambassador to Greece firmly underlined this fact by stating that the Piraeus Port project is the “dragon head” for the entire initiative. Greece’s strategic geographical location acts as a bridge between Europe and Asia, allowing for an easier distribution of Chinese products into the Balkans and Western Europe, which would otherwise have to sail to Northern European ports through Gibraltar. The port of Piraeus is of paramount importance to the OBOR sea lane and for the control of the Eastern Mediterranean. For China, the political leverage that goes along with such investment is especially important considering Greece’s position within the EU could be used to promote its interests, as was demonstrated by the June 2017 vote. From the Greek perspective, seeking Chinese investment is a no-brainer: isolated by its European partners and in dire need of foreign capital to boost economic growth, room for moralized selectiveness is virtually inexistent. Chinese investments have so far proven to be successful, reliable and well-adapted to the Greek sociopolitical realm. The unwritten political obligations towards China are a small price to be paid in what is otherwise a hostile economic environment.   

This unprecedented Sino-Greek rapprochement leaves the EU rather bewildered, mostly stemming from its inability to reverse the tide of Chinese investment flowing into Greece. The majority of EU officials seem so emotionally engaged with lecturing international powers on human rights and criticizing bankrupt states for accepting foreign investment that one would be forgiven to think that they have refrained from watching the news since December 26th 1991. I would argue that the comeback of authoritarianism is, whether we like it or not, a political reality that we can do little to stop. If the EU is to have any chance of survival in this international jungle, the recipe for success has to include cooperating and trading with authoritarian powers without selectively lecturing on human rights. The EU simply does not have the economic or political might to lecture China on internal affairs; arguing otherwise is nothing less than wishful thinking. The benefit of arbitrarily hurling human rights charges on foreign actors is questionable at best; in a world in which Western influence is declining, a more realist approach to foreign policy seems increasingly promising. Holding individual member states responsible for pursuing their interests and not condemning human rights violations taking place 8000 km from their territory is, in my opinion, preposterous. Sino-Greek relations effectively highlight a reality that the Union has been reluctant to embrace. The days of a unipolar, Western dominated world are long gone and with it our ability to influence large countries like China into adopting our models; it is perhaps time we finally acknowledge that Fukuyama’s End of History couldn’t be further from the truth.

Petros Liakopoulos is a Master’s student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by Friends of Europe