- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Panagiotis Kouroumblis, Greece’s minister of maritime affairs, has a simple message for those who worry that China’s massive investment in the Greek economy and in the port of Piraeus may give Beijing too much influence in Athens: Get in the game or get left behind.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Mr. Kouroumblis, who has overseen one of his country’s most critical industries since November 2016, said in an interview while on a tour of the United States late last month.

“When my American counterparts ask why the Chinese are investing so much in Greece, I say, ‘Where are the U.S. investors?’ It can make for an embarrassing moment,” he said.

Mr. Kouroumblis said a major thrust of his trip was to encourage American companies to take another look at Greece, which he said is emerging from a long period of economic hardship and fiscal austerity and is ripe for new infrastructure investment.

He noted that Greece, after a painful debt crisis in the wake of the 2008 global downturn, is finally starting to tap international bond markets again under center-left Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. International agencies say gross domestic product is on track for growth this year and next, and unemployment — once over 30 percent — is below 20 percent and falling.

Once the European Union’s problem child, Greece is now “a pillar of stability in a very unstable region,” the minister said.

With China providing much of the capital, Greek officials have big ambitions for Piraeus. China Ocean Shipping Co. (COSCO), a state-owned company, purchased a majority stake in the port from the Greek government in 2016 for $456 million. The World Shipping Council last year ranked the Aegean port 45th in the world measured by container volume, and Mr. Kouroumblis says Greek officials are pushing to get the port into the top 20.

But the substantial Chinese investment has raised concerns that Athens is becoming another outpost for China’s economic diplomacy push. Critics say Greece has become a leading voice for a softer line against Beijing inside European Union councils, most notably leading opposition to the bloc’s efforts to criticize China’s policies on human rights and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“The Greek economy is thirsty for investments, and the presence of Chinese companies is important and we welcome it,” Mr. Tsipras said at a September business conference in Thessaloniki that featured a major Chinese presence.

But Mr. Kouroumblis dismissed the idea that Beijing enjoyed undue influence. Greece’s vitally important shipping industry, he said, would welcome more U.S. investment. The U.S. will be the featured country at the nine-day international trade fair this September in Thessaloniki.

“Greece may be small, but we will be nobody’s colony,” said the minister, who lost his eyesight to a German hand grenade left over from World War II and is the first blind person ever elected to the Greek parliament. “Our dealings with China are based on a feeling of mutual respect.”

Greece and China, he said, “are the centers of the two great ancient cultures: one in the East and one in the West. In that sense, despite our size differences, we see eye to eye.”

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