Americans and Europeans often complain about China’s economic penetration of Greece. They have reached the conclusion that the port of Piraeus is just the tip of the iceberg in what is a long-term project to control more of the Mediterranean country’s infrastructure. Greece, of course, is not the exclusive focus of intense Chinese activity. Italy, Portugal and several Balkan countries are also a part of the trend.
Such concerns remind me of the story of a powerful oligarch who once complained to a government minister for having assigned a project to one of his competitors. “But I asked you if you were interested in the project and you said no,” the minister objected. To which the oligarch responded: “You asked me if I was interested in the project. You did not ask me who you should assign the project to.”
The truth is that as the Greek financial crisis unfolded, the Chinese did come and invest money in the country. And they did so despite huge obstacles. The decision to invest here was obviously a political one – and did not run the risk of being overturned due to shareholders’ reactions to falling dividend yields or damages. Beijing’s strategic maneuvers come with a lot of patience, as well as capital. This is something that Washington, Berlin or Paris cannot match. When the Greek prime minister called his European counterparts asking them to send investors to put money into big projects, their response was typically, “That is not how we operate.”
As capital leaves the Old Continent, heading east, there is the clear risk that key infrastructure and assets will leave with it. No European country – and that includes countries with greater influence than Greece – can stand alone vis-a-vis China if the latter chooses to swallow it up. European Union officials are already debating what must be done to tackle this, but they have yet to come up with any meaningful answers.
Greece has every interest in trying to attract investment from anywhere it can. It is, after all, a member of the bloc, a fact which guarantees basic rules of transparency and competition for every privatization and major project. Greece is also an organic part of the West, which means it is extremely unlikely that it will become a satellite state of China or some other great power in the near future.
As for those who complain about the situation, they’d better abide by the old saying and put their money where their mouth is.