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Foreign Policy

Greece in a World of Great Power Competition

Sep 10, 2019
  • Shi Zhiqin

    Professor of International Politics, Tsinghua University
  • Vasilis Trigkas

    Onassis Visiting Scholar, Tsinghua University

Since 2009, Greece has experienced the most serious economic depression in peacetime history and, consequently a turbulent political environment has emerged. Last July, a new conservative government was elected with a wide parliamentary majority, and many commentators around the world have now declared the end of populism and the return of political normalcy. Yet a new age of great power competition between China and the United States will complicate Greece’s already arduous geopolitical environment, and will demand gyroscopic and decisive strategizing from Greek elites at a moment when the Greek economy has just started to recover. 

During the years of the Greek economic crisis, China had been one of Greece’s most important investment partners. Greece had reciprocated by offering critical diplomatic support to China. Under the previous left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras, Athens had supported Chinese political positions in the United Nations and the EU, and had been the very first Western European state to endorse China’s megaproject for the 21st century: the Belt and Road Initiative. Before that, in 2007 the right-wing government of Costas Karamanlis opened up the Piraeus port to COSCO, which eventually turned a backwater port into one of the EU's largest. China has enjoyed bipartisan political support in Greece, and the Greek public has been one of the most pro-Chinese in the EU. 

Yet, as a former US senior official put it at a recent summit of the Economist magazine in Athens, under CFIUS rules COSCO would have never been allowed to acquire a majority stake in strategic infrastructure. For some that was an implicit signal that the US foreign policy establishment will up the ante and soon will ask Greece to limit its strategic economic partnership with China. Even Israel, which enjoys much bipartisan support in the United States has recently been warned by the US congress on its economic ties with Beijing. As the geopolitical competition between China and the United States becomes more cutthroat, countries in between will see their strategic flexibility hardened

As the United States and Greece are now negotiating the revision of their 1990 mutual defense and cooperation agreement (MDCA), Washington can exercise significant diplomatic leverage over Greece. Greece’s core national threat is found in the near East, as a neo-Ottoman Turkey is infringing on the country’s sovereignty in the Aegean sea and bullying the republic of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. With the once powerful Greek navy being devastated by 10 years of economic depression, the US navy is the sole guarantor of peace in the Mediterranean region. In addition, the recent quadrilateral summit in Athens between the ministers of energy of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United States highlighted the increased commitment of Washington into regional energy cooperation. This is seen by Greece as a key geoeconomic initiative with significant impact, however skepticism remains on US’s financial support for the ‘Eastmed’ - an expensive gas pipeline transporting Israeli gas through Cyprus to Greece and Italy. 

The new conservative Mitsotakis government was elected on a platform promising regulatory reforms that would attract foreign investors. For Kyriakos Mitsotakis, foreign investments are seen as the most important inflow - almost a panacea - to support Greek economic recovery and employment. When recently asked about China, Mitsotakis responded that he would engage with the Chinese, who have indeed been important investors in Greece, and he criticized those who have been vocal against Greece’s economic relations with China, asking them to ‘put their wallet where their mouth is and invest in Greece instead’. On the issue of Huawei, Mitsotakis cautiously responded that Greece will seek a European solution. Mitsotakis - an alumnus of the Harvard Business School - seems fluent in diplomatic language, but soon action may speak louder than words, as the United States is expected to put more pressure on its allies and ask them to pick sides in a formative new Cold War. 

In such an ominous geopolitical environment, Greece will have to play smart. It will have to reassure the United States on its commitment to transatlanticism, and double down on its security engagement with Egypt and Israel. In addition, Greece should continue its comprehensive diplomatic engagement with the Balkans and strongly promote regional economic integration. However, at the same time Athens should preserve its economic and cultural bonds with Beijing. Last May, the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos was the sole leader of a Western nation to have been invited in China’s summit for the dialogue of Civilizations. For China, Greece is not just a middle-sized European state located at an important geopolitical crossroad between Asia, Europe and Africa, but another great civilization that has laid the foundations of the West and also influenced global civilization including China. Even Karl Marx himself studied the Greek philosophers for his doctoral dissertation, and was deeply influenced by them. China’s outreach to Greece is  genuine and civilizational. 

As actions speak louder than words, China has long been committed in Greece’s economic recovery, and with COSCO it has shown that Piraeus may soon become one of Europe’s most important commercial hubs. Recently, a European scholar asserted that Greece is ‘getting good in geopolitics.’ This will soon be tested. It is in Greece’s national interest to pursue continuity in its relations with China and even act as a strategic interpreter between Washington and Beijing, but this will demand creative strategic acuity, as the United States will soon divide the world into friends and enemies. 

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