Interview of George Katrougkalos, Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs, responsible for European Affairs and International Economic Relations to Aggeliki Spanou
“The geographical position of our country renders Greece to a physical bridge between Europe and Asia and a privileged partner in terms of Chinese trade” underlines the Alternate Foreign Minister for European Affairs, George Katrougkalos as he describes the Greek strategy to capitalize these advantages.
We have been hearing for a long time about the “strategic cooperation” between Greece and China. What has changed during the last year?
During the last year, the “strategic cooperation” between Greece and China has been enhanced by the signing of two very important texts. The first one that was signed during the visit of the Prime Minister, Mr. Alexis Tsipras, to Beijing, refers to the “Joint Statement on Strengthening Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the Hellenic Republic and the People’s Republic of China”. Inter alia, this text strongly recognizes, on behalf of the Chinese side, the constructive role of our country both in geostrategic terms and in terms of the EU, so as to promote the EU – China cooperation.
Furthermore, two months ago, in Beijing, the National Development and Reform Commission of China signed the 2017-2019 Plan on Key Areas of Cooperation between China and Greece with the Ministry of Economic Development of Greece. The aim of this framework is the enhancement of the two countries’ economic cooperation in basic fields and the effective combination of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative with the development strategy of Greece, through the support of common investment projects in four basic economic fields: transport, energy, telecommunications, financing. The signed text, that both sides consider a “milestone”, lays the foundation for Chinese investments in Greece, starting from the already existing COSCO investment in Piraeus port.
Does the theory that our country will become a Chinese gate to Europe have a basis?
The geographical position of our country renders Greece to a physical bridge between Europe and Asia, and a privileged partner in terms of Chinese trade. Our aim is to maximize these advantages mainly in the following ways:
a. For the Maritime Road of O.B.O.R. (“One Belt, One Road”), the Piraeus port is the first point of entry to Europe.
Greece strongly supports the Chinese initiative “One Belt, One Road” and has a crucial role to play in the planning of this initiative, since for the Maritime part of O.B.O.R., which starts from the east coasts of China and via South Asia and West Africa ends up in Europe, the Piraeus port is the first point of entry to the European Continent via the New Suez Canal. The recent COSCO investment in Piraeus aims at rendering the Greek port to the most important container hub in the Mediterranean.
It is not a coincidence that the President of the People’s Republic of China, Mr. Xi Jinping, mentioned during the opening ceremony of the “Belt and Road Forum”, in Beijing (2017/5/14), that the upgrade of Piraeus port (through COSCO investment) and of Gwadar port in Pakistan is considered as the most important project in the O.B.O.R. framework, as COSCO itself calls Piraeus Container Terminal “supporter of Chinese extroversion”.
It is also worth mentioning that the O.B.O.R. ports network in the Mediterranean, starting from the Piraeus port, is supplemented by the Container Terminals in Valencia and Bilbao (Spain), since COSCO last June acquired the majority of their shares.
b. The Piraeus – Budapest railway connection is going to form the rapid vertical connection of O.B.O.R. land and sea axes.
The modernization of Belgrade – Budapest railway connection, with a total length of 350 km, is of major importance to Greece as part of the axis connecting Piraeus with Budapest that is going to be the fastest way to transfer goods from Far East to the Central Europe markets. The Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Greece, Mr. Zou Xiaoli, considers the Piraeus – Budapest connection “China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route” as rapid vertical connection of O.B.O.R. land and sea axes.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister, Mr. Tsipras, during his contacts in the sidelines of “Belt and Road Forum” in Beijing (2017/5/12-15) presented the upgrade of the railway line “Piraeus – Athens – Thessaloniki – Belgrade” as one of the investment projects of major interest for the Greek Government that is seeking to attract Chinese investors.
There is a broad discussion about attracting Chinese investments. Is there something tangible?
First of all, allow me to stress again the bilateral “2017-2019 Plan on Key Areas of Cooperation between China and Greece”, which I already mentioned and which actually indicates fields of investment cooperation between our country and China. A series of investment projects are in progress, such as:
-The expansion of the already existing cooperation between the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) and the Independent Power Transmission Operator S.A. (IPTO/ADMIE), so as to render the latter to an energy hub in the broader region, through new forms of cooperation of Asia – Europe electricity networks. I would like to remind that the SGCC already possesses the 24% of ADMIE shares that it purchased in 2016.
-The Memorandum of Nova – Forthnet – ZTE Investment Cooperation that was signed in Beijing in presence of Mr. Tsipras. The Memorandum refers to the investments of 500 mil-lion dollars within seven years so as to construct a fiber optics network in Greece.
-The interest expressed by China Development Bank (CDB) to do business in our country, so as to finance Greek investment projects, mainly in the field of airports.
Apart from the above mentioned, the Greek Government has created a communication channel with major Chinese financing operators, such as Sino – Central & Eastern European Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, in order to promote Greek infrastructure investment plans, such as the Egnatia Motorway, which recently attracted the interest of a Chinese company.
According to the information we have, the Chinese investment interest focuses on transport networks, ports, airports and properties, and there are actually certain companies that are willing to submit an expression of interest for relevant projects that are going to be announced.
What should be done in order to increase the inbound tourism from China?
It is estimated that approximately 5.5 millions of Chinese tourists arrive in Europe every year, a number that rises yearly, with only 150,000 of whom visiting Greece in the previous year. Our goal is to increase the number of visiting Chinese tourists to 1.5 million per year. Indeed, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics is quite optimistic, since, according to its own data, China is expected to become the main source of inbound tourism to Greece, considering that tourist flows are expected to rise by 400% in the coming years.
The key factors that will attract more Chinese tourists at our country more effectively are the following:
a. the Athens-Beijing direct air connection, which has been a constant request by the Greek side for a number of years. At present, there are only two flights per week between Athens and Beijing, with a stopover in Munich, but we expect Air China to launch the Athens-Beijing direct air flights in autumn, as was announced by the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Wang Yi, during the official visit of his Greek counterpart, Mr. Nikolaos Kotzias, in Beijing, last May.
b. the further upgrading of Piraeus port cruise ship facilities. Cruise ship tourism is among the top choices of Chinese tourists. The expected expansion of the cruise ship passenger terminals in Piraeus port will contribute decisively to attracting more Chinese visitors to Greece. COSCO aspires to turning Piraeus port into the main hub of the Mediterranean Sea for cruise ship docking and creating new jobs in this sector.
Moreover, there are additional factors that are considered fundamental in attracting more Chinese tourists, which should be exploited to the fullest, especially by Greek travel agents, with the assistance of the Greek government. Allow me to mention some of them:
- facilitating the payment methods for the Chinese who are on holidays in Greece, by adopting the Chinese electronic payment system. At this point, I should mention that the Chinese card UnionPay is already accepted for payments in Greece, while the Alipay card of Alibaba will probably be accepted as well in the near future.
- providing “friendlier” tourist services to Chinese tourists, such as free wi-fi in hotels, Chinese TV channels and tour guides better trained in the Chinese culture and language.
- promoting and advertising Greek cities and local produce more effectively by organizing promotional events on an international level. It is necessary to acquaint Chinese tourists with more destinations in Greece, apart from the ones already established as “classic” choices, such as the island of Santorini. At this point, it is worth mentioning the considerable efforts of the “Amphictyony of Ancient Cities” initiative, which has been organizing the Sino-Greek “Cities Forum” for the past two years, in order to promote the Greek Municipalities’ tourist attractions and investment opportunities.
Translation: Eleni Moutsaki, Theofanis Frangis