Concerns Grow Over China's Influence On European Ports

Oct 10, 2018
Originally published on October 11, 2018 8:26 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On the program yesterday, we heard how a Chinese shipping giant has set anchor in Europe, taking over the Greek port of Piraeus. Over the last decade, the Chinese have spent billions on several other ports in Europe. And EU officials are getting worried that China is buying too much political and economic influence in Europe. Here's more now from Joanna Kakissis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in foreign language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When Chinese and EU leaders met in Brussels last year, there were protests. Tibetans and Uighurs, minorities persecuted by China, demanded that the EU condemn Beijing's human rights abuses. The EU drafted a resolution to do just that. But for the first time in recent memory, one EU member state refused to endorse it. It was Greece. A Chinese company runs its biggest port. Former Greek shipping minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis brushed off the connection.

PANAGIOTIS KOUROUMBLIS: (Through interpreter) There are many reasons why a country is careful about condemning another country. I mean, does the U.S. vote against its interests at the U.N.? So Greece also has every right to make a decision based on its own interests.

KAKISSIS: But the Greek decision set off alarm bells in Brussels, especially because China now controls 10 percent of European port volume.

THERESA FALLON: For Europeans, I think it was a wakeup call.

KAKISSIS: Theresa Fallon is a Brussels-based analyst specializing in Chinese maritime investment.

FALLON: Because they always think of China as so far away. It's not a threat to us. We can just trade with them. But when Chinese ships are coming closer and closer to them, it's a physical reminder that, wow, China might have longer-term interests in this region.

KAKISSIS: To illustrate, she traces a halfmoon on the table of the Brussels cafe where we're talking about the Chinese.

FALLON: They've invested all along the peripheries of Europe. It's, like, almost an anaconda strategy. Like, you surround it and squeeze it. And that way, you have some control and leverage.

KAKISSIS: Chinese shipping companies now hold stakes in at least 12 EU ports, including Europe's largest port, Rotterdam.

Chinese shipping giant COSCO, which runs Piraeus port in Greece, has a minority share in an important cargo terminal in Rotterdam.

Nice to meet you.

Port strategist Michiel Nijdam says China's just doing what European shipping companies did before them.

MICHIEL NIJDAM: They're building a network of terminals that they can serve with their ships. And so they have more control over a whole network. And it's, well, easier to operate and more cost effective. It doesn't really look to me like something like a dangerous development or something to really worry about.

KAKISSIS: Dutch analyst Frans-Paul van der Putten has noticed another pattern as he studies China's port strategy.

FRANS-PAUL VAN DER PUTTEN: What COSCO and Chinese companies seem to be doing at the moment is to focus mostly on not the largest European seaports but somewhat smaller ones and then develop them to become bigger.

KAKISSIS: He says smaller ports are easier to invest in than larger ones, where everyone wants a piece of the action. And one of those smaller ports is Zeebrugge in Belgium. COSCO recently took over the container terminal here. Zeebrugge's cargo terminal has long been overshadowed by the nearby ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, which are Europe's largest.

CARLA DEBART: There's a lot of ports - too much. And everyone can do everything, basically.

KAKISSIS: Carla Debart is managing director of Zeebrugge's container terminal.

DEBART: Then it's a choice. Then it's a choice, and you have to make sure that you are chosen.

KAKISSIS: And Zeebrugge never felt like the chosen one. Last year, Danish investors pulled out. Debart thought the terminal would close and 200 people would lose their jobs. And then COSCO stepped in.

DEBART: With COSCO as the shareholder, people could see a future again. At the same time, there was a concern with the people if everything would change.

KAKISSIS: COSCO's takeover of the Greek port of Piraeus fuelled both good and bad expectations in Zeebrugge - good in that Piraeus is now the fastest growing port in the world, bad in that Greek port workers say COSCO exploits them. Debart had no idea what would happen.

DEBART: Are we going to have a Chinese terminal? Is everything going to be run as a Chinese terminal?

KAKISSIS: But COSCO did not take over the port authority in Zeebrugge as it did in Piraeus. So the company did not make big changes. COSCO's CEO here, David Liu, praises the Belgian staff.

DAVID LIU: They gave us a very sophisticated, good, professional teams already. So we don't want to dismantle this team. So we don't need to send all the Chinese guys from all over the world into here.

KAKISSIS: Liu is a cheerful man in a suit and All-Star sneakers. He made managing director Carla Debart his deputy. They joke as we share Chinese oolong tea in her office.

What was it about this port that was particularly attractive?

LIU: So we have big plans to try to make it - Zeebrugge - just a hub center for northwest Europe. We try to make a bridge to link the Europe and China.

KAKISSIS: That's what dockworker Matthias Simoens wants to hear. Outside at the busy cargo terminal, he directs trucks packed with COSCO containers.

MATTHIAS SIMOENS: I think now we're taking off. (Laughter).

KAKISSIS: He shrugs off China's involvement.

SIMOENS: The most important thing to me is indeed that I have a job. People here have a job. They know more work is coming. They know COSCO has big plans.

KAKISSIS: The EU is not as enthusiastic. Fearing growing Chinese influence, EU leaders now want to screen any future foreign investments in European ports. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Zeebrugge, Belgium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.