China is trying to rekindle Greece’s interest in the Belt and Road Initiative, a Beijing-led global infrastructure development strategy.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed the Initiative on the phone on Wednesday. The conversation was held on occasion of the 15th anniversary of “Integrated Strategic Partnership” agreement (2006), which upgraded Greece-China relations from the level of constructive engagement to a strategic partnership.
Xi said China hoped to deepen cooperation with central and eastern European countries through the Belt and Road Initiative and delivered a similar message to Czech President Milos Zeman in a separate phone call on Thursday.
The Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.
“Belt” is short for the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” referring to the proposed overland routes for road and rail transportation through landlocked Central Asia along the famed historical trade routes of the Western Regions; whereas “road” is short for the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, referring to the Indo-Pacific sea routes through Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Greece-Central Europe canal idea
Examples of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investments include ports, skyscrapers, railroads, roads, airports, dams, and railroad tunnels.
Another project that has been discussed in Beijing is to build a canal trade route from the Aegean sea to Danube river to connect Greece and central Europe through the Balkans in order to expedite the shipping of goods.
This would also be a part of China’s $3 trillion Belt and Road initiative to bridge the infrastructure gap along trade routes to Africa, Asia and Europe.
Greece is a member of the so-called 17+1 grouping, initiated by China with the participation of 17 other central and eastern European Nations. China says the initiative is a “win–win” cooperation for the countries involved and the EU. However, critics that China is pursuing an assertive strategy of “divide and conquer” designed to benefit China at Europe’s expense.
Greece embraces relations with China despite EU skepticism
Greece, which has struggled with a decade-long debt crisis, has notably embraced relations with China in recent years, despite growing skepticism among EU states towards Beijing.
This has included an active Greek role in Xi’s signature belt and road infrastructure scheme which has placed Piraeus – said to be the oldest port in Europe – under the control of China’s state-owned shipping giant Cosco. In 2017, Greece also blocked an EU statement at the UN criticizing China for its human rights record.
Xi and Mitsotakis agreed that the “Greece-China Year of Culture & Tourism” – to begin in September 2021 and extend to 2022 – is a good opportunity to further strengthen relations and increase tourist flows between the two countries.
With China a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the role it can play in consolidating stability in the Eastern Mediterranean was also discussed. Mitsotakis expressed Greece’s appreciation for China’s stable stance in favor of settling the Cyprus issue on the basis of UN Security Council decisions.
In another sign that Greece wants to maintain close relations with China, Mitsotakis accepted an invitation to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing.
The Greek Premier is breaking ranks with other EU members ahead of an expected non-binding resolution in the European Parliament calling for a diplomatic boycott of the Games because of alleged human rights abuses in China.
The European Parliament is set to vote on Thursday on the resolution calling for EU institutions and member states to “decline invitations for government representatives and diplomats to attend, unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verified improvement” in its human rights record, according to a draft of the motion seen by the South China Morning Post.
In March, the EU sanctioned Chinese officials over “serious human rights violations” linked to China’s detention of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang – the first sanctions it has placed on China since Beijing’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989