Business / View

Greece is up for sale and Chinese firms are in pole position

By MIKE BASTIN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-07-14 10:35

Despite the resounding "No" vote victory in the referendum held in Greece recently over the austerity package proposed by the so-called Troika-the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund-the Greek government on Monday clinched a deal with eurozone leaders to negotiate a third bailout to keep the near-bankrupt country in the eurozone.

The political decision could pave the way for the ECB to extend emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks.

As more negotiations and uncertainties are expected-the Greek government has to push a drastic austerity program including pension, market and privatization reforms through parliament-the real business and investment issue appears to have received scant regard.

Many may view the Greek debt crisis with negativity and pessimism, but those members of the international business community geared for success will see nothing but investment and expansion opportunities.

In fact, Greece is now open more than ever to outside investment. And it is China and Chinese businesses that once again may be the first to ride to the rescue.

Chinese investment across Europe has been hailed by many as key to shoring up what remains a dire economic picture. But where Greece is concerned, it may well be that the Chinese are the first to inject much needed capital.

The question now is should Greece and Greek companies fear what could soon amount to a major wave of Chinese investment?

Of course not. Ambitious Chinese companies are ready and willing, without doubt, and they are open to alliances with European industry when it comes to long-term investment opportunities.

The continued international expansion of Chinese industry is no short-term, asset-stripping game. Airports and ports are prime targets for overseas investors and would provide the Greek government with a relatively straightforward way of raising the finance needed to keep the creditors at bay.

It is abundantly clear the Greek government's control over their major port, Piraeus, could be about to end. As part of Syriza's deal last month with the IMF, European Commission and the ECB to repay about 240 billion euros ($254 billion) that Greece borrowed back in 2010, the country's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was compelled to leave Piraeus up for sale. This is probably the thin end of the wedge too.

For China, that is excellent news, since its State-run shipping behemoth, the China Ocean Shipping (Group), or COSCO, is in pole position to snap up the 67 percent of Pireaus Port under Greek government control.

Chinese capital has already been pumped into the Greek economy. As far back as 2008, one of China's shipping industry giants sealed a deal with Piraeus. China Offshore Shipping Corporation signed a 35-year operating lease worth around 490 million euros. And so began a Sino-Greek relationship, where much-needed capital has helped prop up the Greek economy while Chinese industry has penetrated a European transport hub.

The Piraeus Pier II deal has since led to an impressive investment and modernization program of which Chinese industry, and COSCO in particular, can be proud. Year after year, since 2008, COSCO, responsible for one of two Piraeus terminals, has brought about substantial upgrading and renovation of many outdated features at the port. For example, it instigated and oversaw the building of a new deep-water dock capable of accommodating the latest container ships.

COSCO has also single-handedly modernized the port's dilapidated crane system. It is considered by many that port traffic in Piraeus has subsequently increased to approximately 3 million containers a year. COSCO has now set a target to double this traffic level within a year of (hopefully) winning a bid to operate the rest of the port.

COSCO's ambitious plans for Piraeus should also be seen as a win-win situation, with the Greek economy benefiting immensely. If it gains full control, Piraeus could grow very quickly to rival the major European ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

The COSCO part of the port now stands in stark contrast to the rest of it, which is still in Greek government hands. While the mega-efficient Chinese operation has become a magnet for modern-day monster ships that require state-of-the-art loading gear to move millions of containers, the Greek government-owned side sits conspicuously silent.

Not that COSCO represents a lone Chinese organization, striving to expand across Europe. One of China's high-tech giants, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, now operates a logistics center based in the port of Pireaus. Furthermore, a Chinese-built rail link is under construction that will ultimately connect Pireaus with Central Europe.

Such coordinated investment on the Chinese side is a recognition of the strategic importance of Pireaus. As a result, more investment interest from China is highly likely and will prove equally beneficial to the Greek government and the Greek economy.

Other major ports, such as Thessaloniki, and many of Greece's major airports are also among the so-called sacred cows that could well become open to private tender and foreign ownership. Chinese companies are now well placed as a result of their record of success in Pireaus, but they need to set sail right away.

The author is a visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and a senior lecturer on marketing at Southampton Solent University's School of Buiness. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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