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Politics

Russia, China cozying up to Greece

MOSCOW/BEIJING -- Greece's debt crisis may lead to geopolitical complications as Russia and China seek to win over the strategically positioned country, potentially upsetting the balance of the region.

     The U.S. has pressed the European Union over the past few months to make progress in talks with Greece. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone Sunday, agreeing that keeping Greece in the eurozone is of critical importance. Both countries worry that a Greek default would not only deal a blow to the global economy, but also have security implications.

     Greece has played a strategic role since the Cold War. NATO, of which Greece is a member, has set up military facilities on Crete and launched fighter jets from there during a 2011 bombing campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's government in Libya. In light of Russia's annexation of the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which extends into the Black Sea, and its military interventions in Ukraine, neighboring Greece has grown more important.

     The U.S. and Europe are increasingly sounding the alarm about Russia's actions. Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Russia in April and June. Russia, suffering from American and European sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, has little money to spare to support Greece directly. It is instead urging Athens to get involved in the planned Turkish Stream pipeline, which will carry natural gas to Europe via Turkey.

     Moscow's overtures to Athens are part of a strategy aimed at advancing into the Mediterranean Sea. Russia signed a deal with Cyprus in February under which Russian ships will use the island country's harbor facilities in exchange for financial support. It also held joint military exercises with Egypt in June.

     China also attaches importance to Greece's strategic location. China Ocean Shipping, China's largest state-owned maritime shipping company, holds the rights to operate a container terminal at Piraeus, Greece's largest port, and is considering buying the port itself. Chinese naval vessels docked at Piraeus in February. Beijing's plans to build modern-day land and maritime Silk Roads linking China and Europe involve Greece and its environs.

     At an EU-China summit in Brussels on Monday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his country hopes to play a constructive role in helping the eurozone and Greece overcome the current crisis. This suggests that Beijing is ready to use its wealth to strengthen its influence in Greece if that nation ends up in an economic predicament.

     China and Russia held joint military drills in the Mediterranean for the first time in May. Moscow has sounded out Tsipras' government about joining the New Development Bank, also known as the BRICS Bank, which counts Russia and China among its key members. The five BRICS countries, also including Brazil, India and South Africa, will hold a July summit in the southern Russian city of Ufa. Moscow and Beijing, which have joined hands in opposition to the U.S. and Europe, could work together on the Greece issue as well.

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