“Greece is China’s gateway to Europe”

“Greece is China’s gateway to Europe”

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An interview with Makis Balaouras, Syriza MP for Ilia and chairman of Hellenic Parliament Standing Committee on Economic Affairs. By Angeliki Spanou.

The Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Economic Affairs, Syriza MP, Makis Balaouras, says he is optimistic about the prospect of upgrading Greek-Chinese relations. He is furthermore looking forward to increased Greek exports to the Chinese market as well as to a multi-level strengthening of bilateral cooperation, from culture to technology.

In recent years, all Greek governments have been investing in Greek-Chinese relations. Is there a difference today? Is something more important underway today than previously?

From a geopolitical point of view, Greece is the only country in the wider region of Southeastern Europe, which offers the guarantees and the advantages of a gateway for countries - from the South-East Asia to the Middle East – wishing to develop economic transactions with the EU. In this sense, we are building stable relations with all the states that belong to these regions, with a view to growth, job creation and prosperity.
In what concerns China, what has changed fundamentally is the aim of the Chinese political leadership.
With the “One Belt One Road” initiative, proclaimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2013, China, as an economic superpower, set the goal of developing its foreign trade. What is important for Greece is that, in the context of the “One Belt, One Road” project, involving $3 trillion of investments in the course of ten years, China views our country as a main hub of the maritime route of the “New Silk Road”, as a maritime gateway to Europe and a key point of access to the trans-European transport network. As we are struggling to extricate our country from the unprecedented economic crisis, we are looking forward to attracting more investments – including Chinese investments – in order to strengthen the Greek economy and boost growth.

Are the expectations that have been cultivated regarding the prospects of Greek-Chinese cooperation exaggerated or realistic?

The messages are encouraging. During Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s visit to Beijing last May, a three-year agreement between Greece and China was signed in order to enable large-scale Chinese investments in our country. This is an important step, the outcomes of which we will see in three years time. Personally, I would like to see a greater balance, in terms of the level of bilateral import-export, in Greek-Chinese cooperation. I would like, as Alexis Tsipras has said, to see a significant increase in exports of Greek agri-food products to China, of Greek processed food. Tourism, research and technological innovation are also important areas for cooperation. Still, I expect to see more outward-looking partnerships between Chinese and Greek businesses engaging in economic activity on the “Silk Road”. Above all, I would say, we should deepen relations in the spheres of Culture and Education.

From your own experience, does Beijing really consider Greece as China’s gateway to Europe?

The Chinese transport 80% of their exports to Europe by sea because this is more advantageous to them. For this reason, they are interested in ports. The location of the port of Piraeus at the southeastern edge of Europe has made it an ideal gateway to importing Chinese products into Eastern and Central Europe. This led to the expression of Cosco's interest in buying a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (PPA). Similarly, they moved to acquire majority shares in cargo ports at the other end, in Southwestern Europe, in Bilbao and Valencia. In 2016, the year of the conclusion of the Cosco-PPA agreement, Piraeus became Europe's eighth-largest container port. This, in my view, shows that Greece is really considered by Beijing as China's gateway to Eastern and Central Europe.

Which Chinese investments can we actually hope for?

Chinese investment interest has so far been expressed for transport, energy and telecommunications projects. We have already had the State Grid investment in Greece’s Independent Power Transmission Operator (IPTO) and a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed between Nova, Forthnet and ZTE that provides for a $500 million investment to build a fiber optic network in Greece. Broadly speaking, the Chinese are primarily interested in transport networks: ports, roads, airports, etc. However, I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that a deepening of cooperation between Greece and China in the context of the “New Silk Road” would gradually create a much larger scope of investment potential than currently exists.

On the Greek side, we believe that the recovery of the country’s economy passes through attracting investments that can contribute to a sustainable growth which creates jobs, respects the environment and the labour law framework. That is, an investment model of sustainable development, compatible with social cohesion and respect for the environment, unlike the makeshift and ultimately antisocial choices of the past.

Have you ever visited China? Are you interested in its culture ?

I have never been to China but I would like to do so. For us Greeks, you know, China is a distant place that captures our imagination. We know that Chinese culture is as old and rich in arts, science, letters, theatre, poetry, music, philosophy as our own. Yet, while all these elements of antiquity, timelessness and wealth, make Chinese culture appear to us as somehow familiar, every time we see its forms in exhibitions, or its expression in readings, it seems so exotic. This is fascinating...