HONG KONG – Premier Li Keqiang has told Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that China is prepared to boost investment in the debt-ridden country after conflicting messages about the sale of the country’s biggest port.
Li telephoned Tsipras to congratulate him on his election victory last month and invited him to visit China, a Greek government official said on condition of anonymity, as the talks were private. Li’s offer of more investment came as talks stalled with the European Union on further funding for Greece.
Tsipras came to power on pledges to throw out EU-imposed economic austerity measures and his government has sent mixed signals about whether it will go ahead with sales of state assets, including a 67 percent stake in Piraeus Port near Athens that China Cosco Holding Co. wants to buy. The port would become a key link in the trading route to Europe that China is developing, and which it dubs a modern-day Silk Road.
“It’s Beijing reaching out to the new government in Athens to make sure both are on the same page,” said Su Hao, professor of diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. “There were confusing reports about the privatization of the port, which is an important project for both countries.”
State-owned Cosco has a 35-year concession to part of the cargo terminal and is on a shortlist to buy the stake in an asset-sale program outlined last year by the government Tsipras defeated.
Greece’s new government said it planned to halt the sale of two of its ports, including Piraeus, rebuffing reports that it was planning to go ahead.
China’s state-owned CCTV broadcaster reported that Tsipras told Li during their conversation that Greece would not change the nature of existing cooperative agreements related to the port and acknowledged its importance to Greece’s economic development.
Li, one of China’s top economic decision makers, has taken a special interest in the development of Piraeus. When Cosco broke ground for Pier III at the terminal on Jan. 22, three days before the election, he sent a letter of congratulations, saying “the Piraeus port will be turned into a first-class port in the Mediterranean Sea and a vital hub of the region.”
“Piraeus port is now folded under China’s New Silk Road plan, and it’s in the Greek interest to go ahead with the previously-agreed project,” said Liu Jiansheng, a research fellow at the European division of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “The project is a win-win for both — the Greeks know this. China is the only non-EU, non-Russian, and non-U.S. partner it can rely on.”
China only ranked as Greece’s ninth biggest trading partner in 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Russia was its biggest, followed by Germany.
“The Chinese side views Greece as a good friend and partner in the European Union,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said. “The Chinese side is ready to work hand in hand with Greece’s new government to deepen bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields.”
Tsipras, elected Jan. 25, irritated European leaders when his government questioned moves to impose more sanctions on Russia, days after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called to congratulate him on his election and offered to boost cooperation between the two countries.
“It is more intelligent to reach out to Beijing than it is to Moscow,” said Robin Niblett, director of the London-based Chatham House foreign-affairs research institute in an interview in Hong Kong. “Chinese money is attractive because it is seen as not coming with strings. Russian money is seen as coming with corruption.”
The Greek and European Union finance ministers put off a decision until next week about the future of Greece after talks in Brussels that ended late Wednesday failed to bridge differences over an aid program to the Greek government. Greece’s bailout package will expire this month if the euro area’s most-indebted nation cannot reach a deal with its creditors, risking a cash crunch.
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