Back in 2016, Chinese shipping company COSCO bought a majority stake in the Greek port of Piraeus. Located in the Saronic Gulf, it is the biggest port in Greece and the seventh-largest in Europe. Recently, it was announced that COSCO will be investing an additional US$660 million into the port for developing it. For America, the Chinese takeover of the Piraeus port adds another major security concern to the list.
“The objective is to transform it [the port] into the biggest transit hub between Europe and Asia and, potentially, the biggest port in Europe… The geographical advantages of Greek ports can be utilized for facilitating and increasing transfer flows from China and the Far East to the European Union, the Balkans, and the Black Sea region, and vice versa,” Kostas Fragogiannis, Greece’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, said to CNBC.
China is the second-largest export market for the EU and its biggest import source. Trade between the two regions averages more than US$1.1 billion every day. Greece has been pivoting toward the Chinese side ever since the country came under the stress of the financial crisis. Beijing has invested in several sectors, like energy, transportation, real estate, and telecommunications. Xi Jinping recently committed to 16 investment projects in Greece. The Bank of China Europe set up a branch in Athens this month while talks of opening a Greek brand of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is also ongoing.
With so much dependence on China, it is inevitable that Greece would support Beijing on crucial international issues. In 2017, Greece blocked an EU statement to the UN Human Rights Council that dealt with human rights violations committed in China, with a Greek official terming such claims as “unconstructive criticism.” This was the first time that the EU failed to make a statement at the council. The EU has raised concerns that a Chinese presence in Greece would turn into economic coercion.
For the United States, which has military relationships with EU nations, Beijing’s relationship with Greece is a clear threat. In fact, the U.S. military uses the Piraeus port for supporting European security and is worried about Chinese involvement in the port. “Chinese port operators could closely monitor the movement of U.S. and Nato warships, gather information about their maintenance operations, and have access to sensitive systems and equipment through interception of electromagnetic signals, intelligence-gathering by use of electronic sensors, visual and human intelligence,” according to Asia Times.
The investment in Piraeus port is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to develop a network of ports, airports, railways, and roads that act as a trade gateway between China and the rest of the world. Several experts have warned about the risk of the BRI project.
In May, the president of the Asian Development Bank, Takehiko Nakao, advised countries partnering up with China on the BRI to carefully assess the merits of a project before signing up for it. “Otherwise, it would cause trouble for the payment capacity of the government. There are merits of having more investment, but at the same time we must be careful that we must find good projects with good returns,” he said in a statement (The Daily Star).
U.S. Sen. James Risch has called for closer cooperation between European nations and the United States to ensure that the international system maintains its commitment to humanitarian values rather than succumb to China’s economic temptations and end up promoting authoritarianism. The BRI, though touted as a trade network, is ultimately Beijing’s plan for making countries economically dependent on it, while also expanding its military prowess.