Chastised by EU, Greece embraces China’s cash and interests

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

NYT — After years of struggling under austerity imposed by European partners and a chilly shoulder from the United States, Greece has embraced the advances of China, its most ardent and geopolitically ambitious suitor.

While Europe was busy squeezing Greece, the Chinese swooped in with bucket-loads of investments that have begun to pay off, not only economically but also by apparently giving China a political foothold in Greece, and by extension, in Europe.

Last summer, Greece helped stop the European Union from issuing a unified statement against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. This June, Athens prevented the bloc from condemning China’s human rights record. Days later it opposed tougher screening of Chinese investments in Europe.

Greece’s diplomatic stance hardly went unnoticed by its European partners or by the United States, all of which had previously worried that the country’s economic vulnerability might make it a ripe target for Russia, always eager to divide the bloc.

Instead, it is the Chinese who have become an increasingly powerful foreign player in Greece after years of assiduous courtship and checkbook diplomacy.

Among those initiatives, China plans to make the Greek port of Piraeus the “dragon head” of its vast “One Belt, One Road” project, a new Silk Road into Europe.

When Germany treated Greece as the eurozone’s delinquent, China designated a recovery-hungry Greece its “most reliable friend” in Europe.

“While the Europeans are acting towards Greece like medieval leeches, the Chinese keep bringing money,” said Costas Douzinas, the head of the Greek Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee and a member of the governing Syriza party.

“If you’re down and someone slaps you and someone else gives you an alm,” Mr. Douzinas said, “when you can do something in return, who will you help, the one who helped you or the one who slapped you?”

“The Greek government needs to choose where its alliances lie and realize the E.U. is not only a market, but first and foremost a community of values,” said Marietje Schaake, a prominent member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands.

Even as Berlin and Brussels grow wary of Chinese investment in Greece, Athens may not care, after suffering under German-enforced austerity attached to the international bailouts that have kept the country afloat since the 2010 debt crisis.

Chinese goods would travel along a new network of railways and roads radiating up through Central European nations, with the prized destination being Germany, where China invested $12 billion last year alone.