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Letter from Athens: China, Greece Ship Supremacy Battle: Junks vs. Triremes

December 12, 2021

If the Chinese know anything about history – and they do – it’s time to dust off the books about the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, where a vastly outnumbered Greek Navy turned the tide against the Persians.

Now the clash is between the world’s two leaders in shipping, Greece currently ruling the waves, but the Chinese trying to catch up at ramming speed, a funny fight between oligarchs. Any chance both sides could lose?

While the rest of the world is busy trying to stay alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, these guys are above the fray in their mahogany offices and yachts while the rest of us are in rowboats.

Greece’s vaunted shipping tycoons, who are essentially tax-free and fly Flags of Convenience from places like The Marshall Islands, didn’t even try to save the port of Piraeus, which Greek governments sold off to the Chinese marine management company COSCO to run.

The Greek shippers are almost invisible in society, except their own, where the air is so rare apparently even viruses can’t live, and apart from a few genuine philanthropists and institutions like the Onassis Foundation and Stavros Niarchos Foundation they don’t donate to anything except themselves.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose well-to-do family is one of the few allowed to nod in their direction, made a feeble attempt to show they would have to do their share and persuade them to fly the flag of Greece – their alleged homeland. They still kid him at their caviar and champagne parties.

The world shipping industry is a $14 billion business and carries more than 11 billion tons of goods annually, essential to the distribution of everything from food to cars and oil and equipment and about everything you can buy.

It is dominated by Greece and China, and their competition is getting intense indeed, the Greeks stopping their rivals from their end game of ruling the world without having to supply the villain in a James Bond movie. Now there’s a story line.

Greek shipowners own about 21 percent of the global merchant marine capacity among ships over 1,000 gross tons, and more than half the capacity of the European Union merchant fleet, but that’s not enough for them.

They’ve been busy adding adding ships, buying them the way you get Legos for your kids at Christmas, except it’s Christmas every day for them if only they didn’t have to worry about the Chinese trying to overtake them the same way China wants to eclipse U.S. Naval superiority.

China is a sea power to be reckoned with, and in November the 6th Annual International Shipping Forum-China was held as a digital conference by Capital Link, a major New York investor relations company that does the same with Greece.

No one apart from the Greek shipping oligarchs wants to tangle with the Chinese because there’s so much money at stake that human rights issues don’t matter, and the International Olympic Committee, determined to let the Beijing Winter Olympics go on in February, pretended tennis star Peng Shuai isn’t actually a hostage after making a sexual assault claim against a top official.

Now comes a showdown over sea supremacy not seen since the Persians came: China’s shippers want to hold their exhibition to show off around the same time that Greece’s shipmeisters have already scheduled their Posidonia event in June, 2022.

In a report, the site TradeWinds said Greek oligarchs and shipping tycoons are angry about the clash in dates as Posidonia is making a comeback after the event was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

George Pateras, President of the Hellenic Chamber of Shipping, described the move of Marintec in Shanghai from December to next June at short notice as “not a welcome development,” and urged its organizers to think again about doing it.

Theo Vokos, Managing Director of Posidonia Exhibitions, told TradeWinds that some participants are “furious” at the move that went against an informal code between major maritime event organizers to avoid unnecessary clashes, breaking an unwritten agreement.

Marintec China announced it had cancelled its planned event in Shanghai in December and rescheduled it to June 2022, although it did not specify exact dates, saying the move was because of the lingering health crisis.

“The international shipping community that traditionally gathers in Athens for Posidonia every two years, having missed the 2020 event, is awaiting with great anticipation for Posidonia in June 2022,” Pateras said in a letter to Vokos.

Marintec organizers blamed the move on COVID-19 travel restrictions on domestic exhibitors and visitors and the “restrictive quarantine measures” for foreign exhibitors and visitors, leaving them little choice.

While both Posidonia and Marintec are similarly sized with more than 2,000 companies exhibiting at each, Posidonia far overshadows China’s attempt to match it, the Greeks hosting side events and parties drawing the rich.

“Anything that detracts from Posidonia and by extension from the interests of the Greek shipping industry, which is projected and promoted through the Posidonia event, will not be helpful,” said Pateras.

What he meant is that anything that detracts from anything the Greek shippers do won’t be tolerated, so the Chinese may want to have some divers check under their vessels for something other than barnacles.

But maybe we can settle this at sea, like gentlemen captains. Somewhere near Salamis.

 

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