ATHENS — Stepping up its military and business presence in Greece, the United States wants the country not to be China's entryway into the European Union, the two major powers struggling for influence.
The Chinese company COSCO has a major stake in operating the port of Piraeus and has wanted to improve rail links from there to Greece's borders to reach other EU countries as part of its New Silk Road program.
Greece has been eager for Chinese investments, especially during a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis but the US has been making moves to have a stronger role in Greece, including renewing a military cooperation agreement.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis earlier this year met with Adam Boehler heads the US International Development Finance Corporation which is trying to be an alternative to Chinese investment programs in the EU.
Boehler’s visit was quickly followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, showing Washington's desire to try to push China out, a double win for Washington as the world's two major superpowers jockey for position.
In a feature, The South China Morning Post noted that Greece's geographical position is a lure to getting into the rest of the EU and expand global influence as well as lucrative trade and extend power.
“China itself has identified (Greece) as the dragon’s head of the Belt and Road Initiative in Europe,” the US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini earlier.
“We’re going to have a debate in terms of how we get the balance right in dealing with the challenge that China presents. China’s not going to go away,” he said, signaling a long-lasting tug 'o war over Greece.
Boehler wanted to convince Mitsotakis that Greece’s second-largest but near-bankrupt shipyard in Elefsina, only 13 kilometers (8.07 miles) west of Piraeus should accept US aid or “fall into the wrong hands,” a diplomatic source who wasn't named told the Chinese newspaper.
US companies are reportedly interested in buying controlling stakes in Alexandroupoli port in northern Greece, strategically located near the border with Turkey.
The US didn't move to counter COSCO's taking of a controlling stake in Piraeus, turning it into a major EU port from a losing backwater, and wanting to move ahead with a 600-million-euro ($702.21 million) renovation that got the green light from the government but now faces delays over local opposition.
A Greek shipbuilder in Piraeus told the South China Morning Post that COSCO's push for the expansion was backed by intense lobbying from the Chinese Embassy in Athens, including ambassador Zhang Qiyue.
“It’s as much a commercial project as a political mission for China,” he said on condition of anonymity. That came two weeks before President Xi Jinping held a video conference with EU leaders in September and his top diplomat, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, was sent to Athens to meet Mitsotakis.
“The Piraeus project is an important symbol of our cooperation, as well as an important project that connects the Belt and Road initiative with your country’s development plan,” Yang told Mitsotakis.
But Boehler’s visit seems to have made the Mitsotakis government rethink its once exuberant support for China and investments in the country although Xi had gone to Piraeus and China’s state-run news agency Xinhua described him as “delighted” with the “successful example of China-Greece cooperation”.
Dimitris Keridis, a member of the Greek Parliament from New Democracy said Greece doesn't have to choose yet between the US and China but said it would be no choice based on what's going on now.
parliament from the current ruling party, New Democracy, said while Greece did “We appreciate the Chinese investment in Greece which we want to see grow and become even more important,” he said.
“But, of course, our relationship with the US is very long, very historic, very important, and multifaceted because it includes a vibrant Greek Diaspora in America. Like many other countries in Europe, we have welcomed the Chinese investment but … not at the cost of the Atlantic orientation.”
Plamen Tonchev, head of the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations’ Asia unit, told the Chinese newspaper, however that, “Right now, the Americans have the upper hand … the Chinese are losing ground after all this spectacular kinship between Greece and China a few years back.”
He added: “China is still in, they are not out, but they are certainly down,” indicating the rising influence of the US, which has been allied with Greece in every major war, Greece wanting American backing over Turkish provocations.
Pompeo said ties with Greece have never been stronger – which is what the US said when the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, that had been anti-American and anti-NATO was in power before.
Pompeo said after meetings in Athens that, “I raised the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to use economic power here and in the region to gain strategic leverage over European democracies.”
Startling and irking China, Greece agreed to sign up to the US-led telecommunications Clean Network initiative during Pompeo’s visit, backing away from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei’s 5G technology that the US said is a spy arm for China's government.
That led Greece to get what it wanted too, Pompeo announcing that the USS Hershel Williams, one of the US navy’s newest and largest warships, would be stationed at Crete at a US navy base on Souda Bay.
Mitsotakis turned to Pompeo and told him, “Mr. Secretary of State, dear friend Mike, your visit here has forged another strong link to the historic ties that bind Greece and the US.”