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29 Oct, 2021 14:59

Greece-ing the wheels: Athens' positive tilt back towards China proves Beijing still has it all to play for in Europe

Greece-ing the wheels: Athens' positive tilt back towards China proves Beijing still has it all to play for in Europe

In the face of vociferous anti-Chinese sentiment from many former Soviet nations in Europe, and pressure from the US on NATO allies to fall in line with Washington, China is still receiving a warm welcome around the Mediterranean.

For the past year, China has been battling to keep its relationship with Europe alive in the midst of growing pressures from multiple directions. It has one core strategic objective in mind: to keep the EU, at least as a whole, from siding wholeheartedly with the United States on its geopolitical crusade against China. That Beijing might be able to uphold the bloc as an important and long-term economic partner, crucial to the EU’s own development. The current picture is mixed, as opposed to tilting in one direction, largely owing to the complexity and diversity of Europe, which is a lot less united than they would hope.

On one hand, Beijing's relationship with Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet bloc, is tanking. The (perhaps understandable) ideological fervour of anti-communism is leading politicians in the Baltics, as well as some in the Czech Republic, to embrace Taiwan and follow the US agenda. On the other, Beijing's relationship with the ‘core’ states which dominate the EU politically and economically, including France and Germany, remains strong, with Xi and Macron engaging in a phone call this week, keeping these smaller aggravators in check. Whilst these states are helping keep the premise of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) alive, another massive disruption is the European Parliament, which not only stands in the way of this deal but is also now provoking on Taiwan.

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While anti-China forces are proving to be an unwanted influence throughout the continent for Beijing, not all is lost. China is continuing to invest effort in carving out a productive relationship with the states of Southern Europe, especially so with Greece. This week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Athens, where he was greeted by his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias. Going against the grain of rhetoric on China these days, Dendias was very upbeat about the prospects of China's involvement in his economy, stating: “We look forward to new investment projects in the largest port of the Mediterranean, one of the largest in the world,” and that “We have repeatedly said Greece can be a gateway from Asia into Europe, an energy hub.”

In conjunction with this, China expanded its owning stake in the country's Piraeus port, seen as the pinnacle of the Belt and Road's expansion into Europe, which the Greek Parliament approved. In addition, Athens then withdrew its support from a routine UN statement on Xinjiang targeting China, becoming the first EU nation to drop its stance on this issue. After Greece, Wang Yi visited Serbia yesterday, and will then visit Italy and Albania. Wang has always tailored his trips as a strategic sweep of nations in a given region in a short span of time, having previously done similar fly-arounds in Africa and Southeast Asia.

It is well known that Serbia is close to China, as the results of the visit revealed. Greece has also typically been one of China's strongest supporters within the EU, and the latest tilt back towards Beijing is an affirmation that, in spite of strategic challenges and the 2019 elections – which saw the left-leaning Syriza government dumped in favour of the centre-right New Democracy party – the relationship remains strong and mutually beneficial. How did this alignment come about? The answer is simple: The financial policies of the European Union, the Eurozone crisis, and the subsequent eyewatering austerity program which followed, brutally and grimly decimated Greece's economy, forcing it to become more reliant on outside sources of capital and investment.

Over the past decade, the economic realities of the country have not improved at all, only worsening with time. Greece remains in a state of economic freefall. In 2008, Greece's GDP was US$354 billion. As of the end of 2020, it is just $189.4 billion. In nominal terms Greece, by estimation, has lost half of its entire economy. Why, in such dire circumstances, would Athens risk siding with a Eurocentric approach to China? Or promoting hawkish policies in the name of ‘unity’? This isn't so much a question of hegemony, as it is of a need for business. In this dominion, the EU has failed Greece completely. Never has one country been so let down economically across such a length of time.

The Belt and Road Initiative, in contrast, has promised a lifeline for the Greek economy, as it allows the country to position itself at the zenith of a strategic shipping route connecting Southern Europe, via the Suez Canal and Red Sea, to the Indian Ocean and on to the Pacific. Greece's geostrategic position means it sees more value in connecting to these commercial passages than it does to the idea of Euro-Atlanticism – something it is more geographically distant from – which is another reason it is a maverick on EU, US, and NATO-related matters.

Athens also deems a close relationship with China, as well as Moscow, a necessary hedge in the face of maritime and geopolitical challenges from Erdogan in Turkey. The membership of both countries in NATO reflects nothing of the practical reality that they are both uneasy neighbours who see each other as geopolitical competitors, a security risk, and historical adversaries. The growing maritime disputes and the frozen ethnic conflict in Cyprus make their ties toxic. China's presence in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative here creates a guarantee of stability, and the Piraeus port allows Greece to be less reliant on trade routed through Turkey and gives it more maritime clout. If one looks at it in this light, Greece is hedging with China against both Brussels and Ankara.

Moving on from Greece of course, another relationship China is aiming to improve in this region of Europe is Italy, where things have in fact soured in the face of anti-China pressures. Rome was, until last year, one of the most pro-China countries in Europe for nearly identical reasons to Athens. Italy, too, had an economic and financial bomb dropped on them by Brussels, which led to Rome also joining the BRI in 2019 (all roads lead here, after all). However, the installation of Mario Draghi as prime minister, a former Eurocrat banker, has immediately seen Italy swing away from Beijing to formulate a more pro-EU, pro-US, pro-status quo foreign policy, ending its ‘renegade’ anti-Brussels populist stance in the midst of the fiscal pain they inflicted.

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Whilst of course Draghi's Italy is by no stretch ‘anti-China’, due to the country's poor economic situation, it is likewise no longer as welcoming as it once was. Draghi has vetoed several Chinese takeovers of Italian firms, with no BRI-related activities taking. Wang Yi's pending visit will hope to kickstart Sino-Italian ties yet again and to inject economic life into a cooling relationship. This has worked with Greece, but it remains to be seen if it can ignite an Italy which, under Draghi, has been more forthright in tilting back to the West. If, however, his economic gambles in re-approaching Europe fail to pay off, another opening might come.

China, nonetheless, continues to see hope and promise in its relationship with Southern Europe, despite a raft of challenges which have fragmented and thrown spanners in the works of the EU's broader relationships with Beijing. It’s a region that, owing to its grim economic outlook and geographic position, has offered an opening to China. With Greece, the courting of Beijing seems to be holding up, providing a convenient anchor at a time when anti-China pressures are trying their best to undermine Sino-European relations. Beijing is thus to be satisfied in continuing to maintain and expand on pockets of support which allow it to widen its economic footprint across the continent. Can the same be said about Italy, though? Only time will tell.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.