Throttled by EU, Greece warms to China's cash

Chinese investments start to pay off economically and politically as Athens' diplomatic stance shifts

ATHENS • 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 US, 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 chequebook diplomacy.

Among those initiatives, China plans to make the Greek port of Pireaus the "dragon head" of its vast One Belt, One Road project, a new Silk Road into Europe. When Germany treated Greece as the euro zone's delinquent, China designated a recovery-hungry Greece as its "most reliable friend" in Europe.

"While the Europeans are acting towards Greece like mediaeval leeches, the Chinese keep bringing money," said Mr Costas Douzinas, head of the Greek Parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee and a member of the governing Syriza party.

WHO TO HELP

If you're down and someone slaps you and someone else gives you an alm, when you can do something in return, who will you help, the one who helped you or the one who slapped you?

MR COSTAS DOUZINAS, head of the Greek Parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee and a member of the governing Syriza party, on supporting China.

China has already used its economic muscle to stamp a major geopolitical footprint in Africa and South America as it scours the globe for natural resources to fuel its economy.

If not looking for natural resources in Europe, China has for years invested heavily across the bloc, its largest trading partner. Yet now, concerns are rising that Beijing is using its economic clout for political leverage.

Mr Douzinas said China had never explicitly asked Greece for support on the human rights vote or on other sensitive issues, though he and other Greek officials acknowledge that explicit requests are not necessary.

"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?"

EU officials are concerned that China is buying silence on human rights issues and undermining the bloc's ability to speak with one voice. Analysts say China targets smaller countries in need of cash, among them Spain, Portugal and others that suffered in the financial crisis. Hungary, where China is pledging to spend billions on a railway, also blocked the EU statement on the South China Sea.

Many analysts have noted that Greece's human rights veto came as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras returned from a summit meeting in Beijing in May, where he signed billions of euros worth of new investment memorandums with Chinese companies.

Greek officials insisted that, despite all the Chinese investments, the country identified with, and was loyal to, the EU and did not do China's bidding. Some European officials are not so sure.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Throttled by EU, Greece warms to China's cash'. Print Edition | Subscribe