Piraeus Port development another step forward for the ‘new Silk Road’. Fu Jing reports from Athens.
Traditionally, when Chinese and other Asian companies send exports to Europe by sea, container ships use routes through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
However, a bottleneck usually develops and cargo can spend additional days in trucks or trains before reaching the final destination. Now, cheaper and faster alternatives are taking shape.
By making good use of the improved infrastructure at Piraeus Port in Greece, managed by the Chinese shipping giant COSCO, containers can be offloaded and directly transported by rail to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, via Skopje in Macedonia, and Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
The land-sea express passage, agreed by all the countries along the route, is serviceable, even though it moves relatively slowly because of outdated railway tracks and disruption caused by the number of refugees flooding into Macedonia.
The passage is just a small part of the Belt and Road Initiative, proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, that aims to better connect Asia, Europe and Africa by improving infrastructure and boosting trade and investment flows.
The Greek government has recognized how the initiative will help the country realize its national strategy of becoming a transportation, energy and economic hub for the Balkans, the Mediterranean region and North Africa.
That will attract more Chinese investment in infrastructure to accelerate development. A high-speed railway has been planned to link Budapest and Belgrade, and the Greeks are considering a similar project.
Stergios Pitsiorlas, Greece’s vice-minister for the economy and development, said China and Greece are working together. Next month, they will sign a three-year action plan to further attract inward investment and achieve synergies between the initiative and Greece’s development strategy.
“The action plan will be signed when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attends the Belt and Road Initiative Forum for International Cooperation (in Beijing) in May,” he said, during an interview with China Daily in Athens.
The action plan will demonstrate how the Belt and Road Initiative perfectly matches the Greek government’s strategy for a multidimensional role in the region.
“I think the synergy of the initiative and Greece’s development strategy will open a new page of bilateral cooperation,” Pitsiorlas said.
Zou Xiaoli, China’s ambassador to Greece, said the two sides are putting the final touches to the cooperation document, and China greatly appreciates Greece’s support and active participation in the initiative.
Zou is confident that Greece will not only emerge from its Eurozone debt crisis, but will also play a more important role in regional peace and stability by implementing its strategy.
“This is in line with the interests of not only Greece, but also China and the European Union,” he said. “Sino-Greece cooperation also has a bearing on Sino-European cooperation and cooperation between different regions of the world, which has important and far-reaching significance.”
Though China’s investment in Greece is still small compared with flows from Germany, France and the United Kingdom, Pitsiorlas believes the future will be successful, especially with the arrival in Piraeus of the shipping giant Cosco.
At the political level, Chinese and Greek leaders have had close exchanges in recent years to lay the foundations for closer cooperation on all fronts.
Xi met with Antonis Samaras, Greece’s former prime minister, in July 2014 when he made a technical stopover on the island of Rhodes on his way to Brazil. In September 2015, Xi met with Tsipras in New York, and they also met in Beijing last year during a visit by the Greek leader. Samaras met Li Keqiang when the Chinese premier visited Greece in 2014.
During the meetings, the Greeks demonstrated that they are committed to attracting Chinese investment. They applauded China’s decision to expand investment in the debt-ridden country when a number of potential investors backed off.
“The two civilizations have deepened their friendship in these hard times (by expanding investment and offering bailout liquidity),” Pitsiorlas said.
In return, Greece helped to evacuate thousands of Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya in 2011, transporting them to Crete and then flying them back to China.
Pitsiorlas and Zou praised Cosco’s involvement in Piraeus Port, which they believe will encourage other Chinese investors.
Pitsiorlas said there has already been intensive engagement with multinational real estate company Dalian Wanda, e-commerce giant Alibaba and energy heavyweight Shenhua Group, and Greece is ready to offer further opportunities for Chinese investment.
“Piraeus Port is becoming the heart of transportation in the Mediterranean area. It shows that Greece can be a bridge between Asia and Europe,” he added.
To further attract Chinese investors, many signs at airports, ports, restaurants and other locations will soon include Chinese characters.
Zou said many Chinese investors have flocked to Greece to explore the opportunities on offer, especially since last year. He has not only welcomed business chiefs, but also Chinese leaders at the municipal and provincial levels, who showed great interest in exploring opportunities by taking advantage of Greece’s gateway position.
Zou attributed the trend to the pioneering “dragon’s head” effect of Cosco’s Piraeus Port project, which is by far the most successful infrastructure cooperation project so far in Greece, and even Europe. “This has greatly boosted the interest and confidence of Chinese businesses to invest in Greece,” he said.
He added that projects under discussion between the two countries cover a wide range of sectors, including shipbuilding and repair, ports, airports, power, telecommunications, finance and insurance, tourism, real estate and energy.
He recently welcomed two companies from Shanghai, who are competing for the same project in Greece. “It is encouraging, and we hope more Chinese investors will come,” he said.