China’s Growing Influence in the Balkans
China has been progressively expanding its sphere of influence into Southeastern Europe through its: One Belt, One Road Initiative; launched in 2013, the program aims to expand China’s role in global affairs through a trading network. Since then, China has invested billions of pounds into Greece and other Balkan countries to establish a “New Silk Road: connecting the Mediterranean and the center of Europe.
The program includes the renovation of airports, harbors, roads, and rails across the Balkans. Chinese corporations have purchased European companies and have invested in a steel mill in Smederevo, near the capital of Serbia, and are constructing new coal-fired plants in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The high and increasing level of Chinese investment is raising concerns throughout the European Union. The new Chinese initiative is seen as a threat to European industries. In 2016, Cosco, the Chinese state-owned company, purchased a 51 percent controlling stake in Greece’s main port, Piraeus for 280.5 million euros. The investment was made in order to maximize capacity and trade between Asia and Eastern Europe.
The main advantage of Piraeus, is its location on the Mediterranean and size; primarily it receives shipments arriving from the Suez Canal and has the capacity to accommodate the largest container ships.
Fotis Provatas, Chairman of the Greek-Chinese Economic Council, welcomed the investments but said that he also fears a backlash from the EU. Provatas explained, "Europe wants economic cooperation with China but in a different way to us...We do not have industries so we do not compete with the Chinese in that way. They are welcome to come here and make cars and other industrial products. This is not the same elsewhere in Europe. They are competitors."
Provatas clarified that the Chinese government has numerous infrastructure projects throughout Greece and the Balkans, including the purchase and expansion of the Athens International Airport, Eleftherios Venizelos. Additionally, China aspires to renovate the Balkan rail network, specifically between Serbia and Macedonia.
Overall, the Greek government has welcomed Chinese investment, in hopes of it aiding in the recovery from the deep financial crisis articulated by Greece's Deputy Minister of Economics, Stergios Pitsiarlos. He believes that Greece should take advantage of its geographical position and its subsequent financial opportunities offered by the Chinese initiative.
In response to warnings from EU ministers for Greece to take its obligations seriously,Pitsiarlos responded, “we will always respect European regulations.”