Greek doors are open to investment

Updated: 2015-06-26 06:38

By Mike Bastin(China Daily Europe)

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Deal for Athens to stay in eurozone would lead to asset sell-off that would leave China in pole position

It is possible that the Greek government and Greece's membership in the eurozone and European Union have been saved by the bell. Once again, at "five to midnight", some sort of lifeline has been proposed and the Greek debt mountain has not, as yet, come crashing down.

While Greece's major creditors appear to have just about accepted some concessions on the Greek position in terms of pension changes and VAT increases, it is crystal clear that this time the clock really is ticking.

Greek doors are open to investment

In effect, this narrowest of escape acts would amount to the inevitable and inexorable monumental climb down on the selling off of strategic assets across Greece.

In short, this means that if Greece is to stay in the eurozone, something all parties desperately want to see, then Greek assets and industry are wide open to foreign investors.

The Greek debt crisis highlights more than anything the limitations of the public sector and government influence and power. It also points clearly to a private sector-led solution. But are foreign investors ready to seize this opportunity and achieve that all-important advantage?

The increasingly and internationally acquisitive and ambitious Chinese private sector is ready, without doubt, but it is also open to cooperative alliances with European industry.

From a private sector investment perspective, it is not the details of the deal, however tentative and tenuous they are, but the tortuous nature of the deal-making.

Greek doors are open to investment

What has emerged from this most recent deal-making process is the desperate desire of both the Greek government and its people to remain part of the eurozone and the EU, and, crucially, the steadfast refusal of Greece's major creditors and the International Monetary Fund to budge an inch on repayment terms and amounts.

It is, therefore, only a matter of time before the Greek government - and the left-leaning Syriza may yet be toppled by an increasingly restive Greek public - caves in on any defiant stance on "crossing the red lines", which opens up just about any part of Greek industry to outside investment and implementing structural reforms across the public sector. How else can the revenues be found to satisfy the creditors?

The issue of tax evasion, often cited as one of the key distinguishing characteristics of the Greek economy in comparison with other eurozone members, also has to be addressed if Greece is to remain inside fortress Europe and the euro.

Specifically, an agreement with creditors relies not just on reformed tax rates, but also collection rates, with Athens losing 6 percent more of GDP to evasion than its peers.

Chinese and European private investors, therefore, should expect this most negative feature of the Greek economy to improve significantly, and soon. No bailout funding will continue otherwise.

Sadly, the glorious Greek Empire is long gone. Now its descendants in power in Athens are close to selling off the family jewels.

Airports and ports are prime targets for overseas investors and would provide the Greek government with a relatively straightforward way of raising the finance needed to keep the creditors at bay.

The sale of the port of Pireaus, if it goes through as is expected, would be a stunning political about-face. It would reverse one of the key promises of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party, which won the Greek elections in January, partly by vowing to halt the sale of Greece's strategic assets - one of the biggest being Piraeus Port, just outside Athens - and its defiance against austerity demands from international creditors.

What is now abundantly clear is that the Greek government's control over their major port is about to end. As part of Syriza's deal last month with the IMF, European Commission and the European Central Bank to repay about 240 billion euros ($254 billion) that Greece borrowed in 2010, Tsipras was compelled to leave Piraeus Port up for sale. This is probably the thin end of the wedge, too.

For China, that is excellent news, since its state-run shipping behemoth, COSCO Group, is in pole position to snap up the 67 percent of Pireaus Port that the Greek government controls.

Chinese capital has already been pumped into the Greek economy. As far back as 2008, China Offshore Shipping Corp signed a 35-year operating lease worth about 490 million euros with Piraeus. So began a Sino-Greek symbiotic relationship where a much-needed injection of capital undoubtedly helped prop up the Greek economy, while Chinese industry penetrated a strategic European transport hub as a major infrastructure partner.

The Piraeus Pier II deal has since led to an impressive investment and modernization program of which Chinese industry, and COSCO in particular, can be mightily proud.

Since 2008, COSCO, responsible for Piraeus Pier II, has brought about substantial upgrading and renovation of many outdated features at the port. For example, the company instigated and oversaw the building of a new deep-water dock capable of accommodating the latest giant container ships. COSCO has also single-handedly modernized the port's dilapidated crane system.

It is considered by many to be no coincidence that port traffic in Piraeus has subsequently rocketed to about 3 million containers a year.

Not content with this unequivocal investment and management record of success, COSCO has now set a target to double traffic within a year of winning the possibly prescient bid to operate the rest of the port.

COSCO's ambitious plans for Piraeus should be seen as a win-win, as the Greek economy as a whole will benefit immensely. If COSCO gains full control, Piraeus could grow quickly to rival the major European ports of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Antwerp.

The COSCO part of Piraeus now stands in stark contrast to that remaining in the hands of the Greek government. While the mega-efficient Chinese operation has become a magnet for modern-day monster shipping vessels that require state-of-the-art loading gear to move millions of containers, on the government-owned side there is a conspicuous silence.

Not that COSCO represents a lone Chinese organization, striving unilaterally to expand across Europe. One of China's high-tech giants, Huawei, operates a logistics center in Pireaus Port. Furthermore, a Chinese-built railway is under construction that will connect Pireaus with Central Europe.

Such coordinated investment on the Chinese side recognizes the strategic importance of the location of the port. As a result, much more investment interest from China is highly likely, proving equally beneficial to the Greek government and the Greek economy overall as it fights to remain in the eurozone.

Other major ports such as Thessaloniki and many of Greece's major airports are also among the so-called sacred cows that could well become open to private tender and foreign ownership, as part of this battle to remain part of the eurozone.

Chinese companies are well placed as a result of their demonstrable record of success in and around Pireaus, but other private sector companies with more than a roving eye in the area should also see them as potentially highly suitable investment partners.

The deal may be done but the scramble for outside investment deals and takeovers has only just begun. Sino-European joint ventures need to set sail right away.

The author is a visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and a senior lecturer at Southampton University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 06/26/2015 page12)