President of the Republic of China Xi Jinping (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) shake hands as they visit the cargo terminal of Chinese company Cosco in the port of Piraeus, Greece, on November 11, 2019.
ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON — Greece has no plans to end economic ties with China, just because other countries are reconsidering their own relationship with the country, Greece’s permanent representative to NATO told CNBC on Monday.
The relationship between China and European nations has deteriorated since March when a diplomatic clash emerged between the two sides. Back then, the EU decided to impose sanctions against China for the “large-scale arbitrary detentions” of ethnic minority Uyghurs. Beijing, which denies that it violates Uyghurs’ human rights, retaliated by announcing counter-sanctions against members of the European Parliament. As a result, the EU put on hold the ratification of an investment agreement with Beijing, which had been presented in December.
In addition, over the weekend, the G-7 group of developed nations said they will call on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It’s a position that Chinese authorities disagree with and the country’s embassy in London said on Monday that the days when a “small” group of countries decided the future path of the world were over, according to the BBC.
“We strategically opt for the best possibilities for our own country, again always within our obligation with the main organizations, which is the EU and NATO. Thus, so far, we have joined the Belt and Road initiative in a very concrete project and in a very concrete term, not looking at that as a strategic relationship with another partner, but certainly we are not going to abandon it, just because others do,” Spiros Lambridis, Greek ambassador and permanent representative to NATO, said.
The global Belt and Road infrastructure plan is designed to create a vast global network of land, sea and digital connections linking China with Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Critics say the unprecedented scheme will favor Chinese firms, boost Beijing’s international influence and force developing nations to take on high debt burdens.
China’s Greek investments
Greece deepened its economic ties with Beijing in the wake of the financial crisis after the Mediterranean nation received three bailout programs, one of which failed to be completed. Thus, investments from China represented an important source of income for the indebted nation.
This has been the case with Piraeus Port, where China’s shipping firm Cosco took a majority stake in 2016. The port is at a strategic location between the Asian and European continents. But China has made a number of different major investments in Greece, including in energy and real estate.
“If we analyse that there is a threat out of that relationship, we will reconsider. But at this point all that we are getting out of this is the benefits of a healthy and very legitimate commercial relationship,” Lambridis added.
His comments contrast with those from some other European nations. Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the G-7 meeting, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said his country would assess its participation in the Belt and Road initiative “carefully.”
Italy became the first G-7 economy to sign a memorandum of understanding with Beijing in 2019 to take part in the project. However, the U.S. and other EU nations raised some concerns about it at the time.
The G-7 nations agreed over the weekend to develop their own competing version of a Belt and Road initiative, by providing infrastructure investments to poorer nations.
Despite this pushback, however, Matthew Goodman, senior vice president at Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia that China’s own massive infrastructure program will still go ahead.
— CNBC’s Yen Nee Lee contributed to this report.