Before flying to Brazil and attending the BRICS summit, President Xi Jinping visited his Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulos in early November 2019 to discuss the progress of the Sino-Greek partnership.
Since the acquisition of the port of Piraeus by the Chinese company COSCO in 2016, Greece has become a privileged partner of China in Europe. This cooperation was strengthened as Athens formalized its participation in the “Belt and Road Initiative” in 2018 and became a member of the 17+1 dialogue that unites China and the Central and Eastern European states in 2019.
During this visit, 16 very diverse agreements were signed between China and Greece (list available here).
- An extradition agreement has been concluded between China and Greece. This agreement follows the extraordinary extradition of a Chinese economic fugitive was arrested in Greece and returned to China in 2015.
- An agreement regarding the opening of several Chinese banks in Greece (Bank of China and Bank of Industry and Commerce of China) to facilitate trade between the two countries.
- Greek farmers will also be allowed to export kiwis to China, after the signing of an agricultural agreement.
- Greece and China have also signed academic and research agreements.
- Cooperation will also be strengthened between the two countries in the aviation and energy sectors, with the possible Chinese participation in the solar power plant of Minos in Crete island.
- Finally, other agreements regard the development of the port of Piraeus
Piraeus, a hub between Europe and China?
The next phase of the development of the port of Piraeus has been delayed for a long time due to archaeological interest, but in October 2019, the port development project was approved. Following the signing of the new master plan, the port of Piraeus will expanded thanks to a €600 million investment plan. This project, which will make Athens one of the main ports in the Mediterranean will also benefit from a European Investment Bank’s €140 millions loan. This proves that Europe and China are collaborating on this issue.
For Athens, expectations are huge, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hopes to make Piraeus the largest port in the Mediterranean and even in Europe. However, this challenge remains immense, since the port of Piraeus is currently the 8th busiest container port (in 2017). Piraeus still cannot compete with North Sea ports, but may offer an alternative as North Sea clusters are about to saturate. As highlighted by President Xi Jinping, the next step is multimodality. More investment will be needed to coordinate activities between the port of Piraeus and Athens Airport and to develop rail transport between Greece and Central Europe.
To achieve this goal, China is supporting the development of a possible rail line from Budapest to Athens. For Europe, it is therefore necessary to strengthen the integration of all Balkan states.
The Balkan region, a key region for European connectivity
Despite French president’s veto to start negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia EU membership, Europe will have to continue integrating this region into its connectivity projects.
It is therefore possible to envisage greater investment by China in infrastructure in the Balkan region in order to sustain the activities of the port of Piraeus.
Far from considering the Chinese presence as a competing force, the European Union will have to take into account the rise of the port of Piraeus to ensure an effective regional development policy.
For Piraeus to become a major hub in the Mediterranean, Greece and China will have to continue coordination with other members of the European Union.