Piraeus harbour: China’s foothold in Europe and its challenge to European democracy

By Ramses Singeling

Has China’s investment in Greece’s Piraeus harbour undermined European democratic values in what is often referred to as the very cradle of democracy? This dramatic premise seemed a simple enough basis for a discussion with Plamen Tonchev, researcher and Head of the Asia Unit at the Institute for International Economic Relations in Athens. But getting intellectually intimate with European values is apparently not that easy. “The presumption behind that question is a bit of a stretch.”

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Plamen Tonchev, Head of Asia Unit, Institute for International Economic Relations

Plamen Tonchev, Head of Asia Unit, Institute for International Economic Relations

During the first leg of the Comenius European Values Leadership Course in Athens, Plamen presented the case of Chinese involvement in Greece’s Piraeus harbour to the participants of the European Values Leadership Course. One week later, I called him. In the interview, I found Plamen incredibly precise in his approach and wording, but the whole topic of European values turned out to be rather confusing. What are these values? And where do we find them?

A guide to understanding European values: Indra’s net

Fifteen minutes into our conversation, it started to dawn on me that European values are rather difficult to capture as separate entities. At least, they aren’t as neatly separated as pundits prefer or even the Comenius course might suggest. So here’s my version of a quick reading guide, a potentially useful metaphor for understanding European values: Indra’s net.

Indra’s net is the endless storied mythological mesh that the Hindu god-like deity Indra spun over his castle and across the universe, the connecting knots adorned with jewels. In the story, each of the jewels reflects the entirety of all the others, which in turn reflects all the other jewels. Loosely, it portrays the idea that something – in fact, anything – can only take shape in relationships. Nothing exists unless it is connected to and reflected in something else.

In plain terms, I discovered that it is impossible to tell a story about a single European value, democracy in this case, while ignoring how it blends into the others. These values are interconnected, born out of each other and intertwined. For example, what’s the precise boundary between solidarity and human dignity in real life? If one breaks down, so does the other.

Secondly, I found it impossible to describe European values without being explicit about their conveyors: the economy, the citizens of a country, individual experiences, political decision-making and so forth. Just like in the ‘Indra’s net’ myth, values only become discernible when they are manifested and reflected in something else. From there on, the connections are endless.

Now, on to the Greek case, where the most prominent knots in the net are Chinese ambitions, an economic and financial crisis, governance, geopolitics, and human hardship.

Greek debts, China’s opportunity

Years before China acquired a majority stake in the Piraeus harbour, back in 2008, China had already been sizing up an opportunity in Greece to gain a foothold in Europe, Plamen explained: “The 2010 debt crisis and deep recession left Greece burdened and desperate for new economic opportunities. Massive austerity measures were imposed on the country. Many Greeks ended up unemployed or in poverty. Not surprisingly, social unrest ensued.”

“This allowed anti-Western and anti-democratic forces in Greek politics to pick up steam. Riding these waves, the Greek government, led by Alexis Tsipras, felt empowered to seek out economic opportunities beyond Europe and the West. It contacted Russia, Iran and even Venezuela. From this perspective, China was an obvious candidate to consider as a business partner.”

Container port Piraeus, Athens.

View of container port in Piraeus, Athens.

In hindsight, some would label this period as a partial breakdown of solidarity, one of Europe’s fundamental values. Institutions that provided the bailout loans to Greece mostly did so to avoid contagious systemic risks to the European financial sector and to make sure that creditors, i.e. the banks, got their money back. The demands for rapid economic restructuring and severe austerity are now seen as having been too harsh. The effects on the daily lives of the Greek population were crushing. Should Europe – and the IMF – have been more lenient in order to alleviate the inevitable hardships – and the breakdown in human dignity?

Piraeus, bilateralism and geopolitics

Unburdened by such ruminations, China was not going to waste a crisis – or an invitation for that matter. In 2016, Beijing acquired a 51 per cent stake in the Piraeus harbour through its state-owned company shipping COSCO. It’s important to stress that this was a business-first opportunity, Plamen clarified, but not business only: “Greece was seen as the weak link in Europe’s unity. Wielding such power over the country’s harbour, one of the country’s key assets, provided China with considerable sway over a European nation.”

But how? Evidence can be found in action, Plamen argued. After inking the 2016 contract with COSCO, Greece’s stance in global affairs evolved to become more pro-China: “In 2016 an international arbitration court in the Hague ruled that China could not expand its claim on the South China Sea. Greece was among only three EU members that did not welcome the outcome. As another goodwill gesture to Beijing, in June 2017 Greece vetoed an official EU statement on China’s human rights record. In 2018, Greece signed onto China’s Belt and Road initiative. In 2019 it joined China’s 16+1 platform at a time when the format, now down to 14+1, was already losing steam.

“This shows that China didn’t need to meddle with Greek internal politics to gain influence in Europe. Building an economic presence through bilateral collaborations with individual nations has allowed it to exert political power and has undermined Europe’s cohesion. This has the potential to diminish the weight of the European Union as a whole, which is definitely in China’s geopolitical interest.”

Back to the USSR: systemic risks

It’s fair to say that China has got a great deal more out of the Piraeus deal than just control over a harbour. Remarkably, the threats stemming from China’s involvement were largely underestimated by the Greek elite, says Plamen. Or even worse: they were overlooked completely. “When I present the story of China’s presence in Greece like this, some decision-makers here are not really happy. Politicians, the general public and the business elite have a fuzzy notion of China’s potential, both positive and negative. Most of Greece’s foreign policy is viewed exclusively through the lens of the country’s strained relationship with Turkey. Some cherish the notion of a bond between two glorious ancient civilisations – it’s a bit like first cousins enjoying a happy reunion several millennia later. Overall, China is more often seen as an opportunity than as a potential threat.”

The European Union seems to disagree, he says: “In its 2019 strategic outlook, the EU formulated its assessment of China as a ‘partner, competitor and systemic rival’. But unlike Greece, the EU is shifting its emphasis towards the latter definition, ‘China as a systemic rival’.

Plamen, born and raised in communist Bulgaria, points to the USSR to explain such systemic risks: “China, like the Soviet Union at the time, is setting incredibly ambitious goals. It has built a powerful rhetoric around overtaking the USA to become the world’s number one on the global stage. This is a highly effective message that has also resonated in Greece.”

“At the same time, China’s economy is slowing down, and its international image has been plummeting, due to its handling of the COVID pandemic and the country’s muscular military stance towards its neighbours. This is not to say that China will collapse like the USSR did, but Greece needs to consider how sustainable its collaborations with China will really be in the long term. As a politician or CEO dealing with China, one has to factor in the possibility of one’s business importing instability.”


“The reality is that all of these views of China’s role in Europe co-exist. We have to deal with the fact that China wields influence in our economies, even while it erodes Europe’s cohesion. We will have to contend with the fact that youngsters here use TikTok, even though its data collection can potentially undermine personal freedom. What’s lacking is a comprehensive policy toolkit to stand up to Chinese interests.”

“Until that time, we have to be aware that our shared European values have given us a lifestyle that attracts people from non-democratic nations, including China, as well as investors and oligarchs. Think about it. They invest here or move here for a reason. Let’s all plan ahead, so we can ensure that these reasons remain in place.”

This is the first in a series in which we explore the complex reality of European values through case studies. Can these shared foundational values still be a source of personal and professional wisdom when the European project is under such pressure? 

European values as a source for your wisdom? Read more about the European Values Leadership Course

Download the brochure

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