Greece: COSCO-owned Piraeus Port
In 2008, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) won a tender for the operation of the PPA’s container facilities (Pier 2 and construction of Pier 3) under a 35-year concession agreement (hereinafter, the ‘2008 deal’). This was the first step in the privatisation of the port and a milestone in a process of neoliberal transition that had started with the corporatisation of the PPA a few years earlier. In 2016, under strong pressure from its creditors, the Greek Government privatised 51 per cent of the PPA’s stocks under public ownership through an open tender in which COSCO was the sole bidder with an offer of 280 million EUR (hereinafter, the ‘2016 deal’). This tender reflected the Chinese shipping giant’s growing influence in the port since the 2008 deal. However, the privatisation was the result of bailout agreements that were imposed on successive Greek governments by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (dubbed ‘the Troika’). These draconian agreements stipulated profound austerity measures and committed Greece to extensive privatisations, including of the PPA. Locally, COSCO was assisted by the powerful Greek shipping elite and part of the political establishment, which helped the Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) to so entrench itself that no other competitor bothered to bid. In 2021, as stipulated in the 2016 deal, COSCO acquired a further 16 per cent stake of the PPA for 90 million EUR, bringing its share to 67 per cent.
Over the past decade, the real or imagined geopolitical ramifications of COSCO’s gradual entry into Piraeus have been dominated by a resurgent ‘China threat’ narrative in both Europe and the United States (Rogelja and Tsimonis 2020). But as the case of Piraeus reveals, threat perceptions are created through discursive exaggerations that disregard the facts and usually distort more than explain reality. Importantly, this process of securitisation of Chinese economic activities is obsessively monothematic and imposes a tunnel vision that ignores important local developments and challenges. For years, international perceptions of the Chinese presence in Piraeus have been shaped by false alarmist warnings about COSCO turning the port into a military base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy and acting as Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party in Greece and the European Union. However, for Piraiotes (citizens of Piraeus), COSCO’s acquisition of the PPA has been a source of concern because of the increasingly negative social and environmental impacts of the port’s operations. Workers, local communities, civil society, and even local businesses have mobilised to contain the many negative externalities caused by the port’s new management.