Greece hopes China’s modern-day Silk Road will help its economic recovery

The port of Piraeus. China invested nearly half a billion euros in the port, transforming it into the busiest harbor in the Mediterranean. Credit Angelos Tzortzinis for The New York Times via the NYT

South China Morning Post — Greece hopes to transform its ancient port of Piraeus into the entry point for an extensive network of roads and railways that will allow China to penetrate into the heart of Europe, the Greek ambassador to Beijing Leonidas Rokanas said.

But Greece, a key point along the route of the ancient Silk Road, will once again serve as the hub connecting Asia, Europe and Africa.

“Eventually, Piraeus will become the main entry point for Chinese exports to southern, eastern and central Europe,” Mr Rokanas told the South China Morning Post.

“To use a Chinese metaphor, Piraeus will form the “head of the dragon” of the so-called land-sea express route, leading to the heart of Europe through Greece.”

Last year, the Chinese state-owned firm COSCO Shipping completed the acquisition of a 51 per cent stake in Piraeus Port, one of the biggest in Europe.

For Greece, Rokanas said the deal represents a major boost for its recovery following the debt crisis that started in 2009 and devastated its economy.

The port has opened door for a flurry of Chinese investments totalling US$1.6 billion from companies including mobile giants Huawe and ZTE, the China Machinery Engineering Corporation as well as State Grid, Shenhua Group and Sinovel in the energy sector.

For China, the deal represents an important piece of the jigsaw in its Belt and Road Initiative as some 50 per cent of China’s GDP and around 90 per cent of the EU’s external trade depends on shipping.

“The land-sea express passage connecting southeast and central Europe to China via Piraeus … has further upgraded the significance of Piraeus,” said the Greek envoy.

Greece has already taken concrete steps towards making the Port of Piraeus the entry point for an extended railway network into inland Europe.

During the Belt and Road Forum last May in Beijing, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras expressed the intent of Greece to upgrade the railway connection between Piraeus and Serbia’s capital Belgrade.

In September, Greece signed an agreement with Bulgaria on the construction of a high-speed railway network, named “Sea2Sea”, that will connect three ports in Greece – Thessaloniki, Kavala, Alexandroupolis – with three Bulgarian ports – Burgas and Varna on the Black Sea and Ruse on the Danube, Europe’s second-longest river.

China is also planning to invest in Hellinikon, one of the biggest real estate projects in Europe to transform an abandoned airport complex into one of the region’s biggest coastal resorts.

The 8 billion  plan to transform the Hellenikon airport site was a key element of Greece’s international bailout and has been closely watched by its official creditors and potential investors in the country.

The deal will help to reduce the country’s unemployment rate, the euro zone’s highest, as it will also create 10,000 new jobs during construction and 75,000 jobs during Hellenikon’s initial operation.

But China’s growing economic footprint in the region has prompted concern in Brussels  over the East Asian giant’s political leverage in the region.