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Belt and Road

China bolsters Europe foothold with Belt and Road expansion

Cosco-run Greek port to receive fresh investment to expand

An aerial photo of the Piraeus Port in Greece, the largest port in the Mediterranean region. (Xinhua)

ATHENS/DALIAN, China -- In Greece, in Egypt and in France, top Chinese officials promoted the Belt and Road Initiative this week, defying U.S. skepticism toward the infrastructure-building program, and making clear their intent to expand its footprint in Europe.

"Seeing is believing," Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday at Piraeus, the Greek port run by Chinese state-owned marine shipper Cosco Group. "I see here today that the Belt and Road Initiative is not a slogan or tale, but a successful practice and brilliant reality."

Piraeus sits at a strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea, a region that opens the door to development in Europe, Russia and North Africa. Cosco has doubled down on its commitment to the poster child of the Belt and Road, by pledging to invest another 600 million euros ($661 million) to develop Piraeus.

The company will expand and refurbish infrastructure, and the addition of a fourth wharf is on the table.

"I wish to elevate this port's shipping capacity and build upon the logistics capabilities connecting China with Europe," Xi said after meeting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens earlier.

The U.S. has expressed concern that China might use Piraeus for military purposes. But Beijing has positioned Piraeus as a successful flagship project of the Belt and Road, and Xi's visit to the port -- during a longer-than-customary three-day stay in Greece -- reconfirmed Beijing's will to strengthen its ties to countries on the periphery of the European Union despite U.S. pressure.

In France on Tuesday, Xi's right-hand man addressed the Paris Peace Forum, where he took a shot at Washington without naming the U.S.

Vice President Wang Qishan compared the world to a vast ocean in which all countries are interconnected. "No one can stay unscathed or deal with these challenges on their own," he said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. "Shifting troubles to others is not the right way forward. Collective response is the only viable solution."

Through concrete actions, such as promoting Belt and Road cooperation, "China is sharing with the world the vast opportunities of its development," the former graft-buster said.

Meanwhile, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang met in Cairo with Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly. China's fourth-ranking official said Egypt was a "natural partner" for Beijing in Belt and Road development.

"China is willing to positively participate in Egypt's strategic planning, including the Suez Canal Corridor development," as well as exploring Africa-oriented tripartite cooperation with Egypt, Wang Yang said.

China has been encouraged by its success in Piraeus, which came at a time when the Greek financial crisis was shrinking the country's gross national product by roughly one-fourth. Though Greece is a member of NATO, Athens found itself in a poor position to refuse China's Belt and Road funds.

In 2008, Cosco acquired rights to operate terminals in the Greek port. The company later spent about 300 million euros to build a third dock.

In 2016, Cosco further invested 280.5 million euros to buy a 51% stake in the operator, Piraeus Port Authority. Athens and Beijing have agreed that the interest will rise to 67% in the medium to long term.

The investments have been accompanied by a surge of containers being processed at Piraeus, with most of the cargo tied to China. Greece welcomes the infusion of foreign money as part of the country's privatization efforts, Adonis Georgiadis, the country's minister of development and investment, told Nikkei.

Though the idea of a foreign interest taking control of a key port has not sat well in some corners, Georgiadis offered his assurance that China will abide by the rules. The two sides are building favorable relations, he said.

Cosco has been on the front lines in acquiring port infrastructure for the "New Silk Road" stretching from the Indian Ocean to Europe. 

Cosco ranks third worldwide in terms of container shipping volume, and it enjoys deep pockets backed by Chinese government largesse. Cosco's operational portfolio includes about 50 docks globally, including those in Abu Dhabi and the Dutch port city of Rotterdam.

The shipper paid $225 million in May to acquire 60% of the operator of the port in the Peruvian city of Chancay. Other Chinese state-owned marine carriers have made port investments in Sri Lanka, Australia and Brazil in recent years.

Additional reporting by Ken Moriyasu in New York.

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