China and Greece established diplomatic relations on June 5, 1972, and entered into a comprehensive strategic partnership in January 2006.
Over the past 50 years, in the spirit of mutual respect, mutual support and friendly cooperation, the friendly ties between the two countries have created a paradigm for countries that are different in size, system and culture.
Looking back, I’ve five highlights in these relations that span half a century.
Highlight #1: Then Greek President Karolos Papoulias attended the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in ancient Olympia on March 24, 2008
Athens is the birthplace of the modern Olympics. In 2004, to honor the Olympics’ centenary, Athens was selected as the host city for the 2004 Games, followed by Beijing in 2008, when China hosted the Games for the first time. Considering the Games an integral part of its cultural legacy, Greece places a high premium on the Olympics and pledged its support for the Beijing Games.
In 2005, Greece and China created a special committee for the preparation of the 2008 Beijing Games and signed a memorandum of understanding on security coordination which, building on Greek experience in hosting the Olympics in 2004, aimed to provide guidance for the preparations for the Beijing Games.
Sino-Greek Olympic cooperation extended further. Current Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou not only attended the flame-lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, but also suggested in a letter that the 2022 Games would provide more opportunities to deepen Sino-Greek relations, particularly in terms of bilateral sports exchanges. The Greek ambassador to China, Georgios Iliopoulos, was the only foreign ambassador to China involved in the Games’ torch relay.
Highlight #2: The Greek government helped evacuate Chinese nationals from Libya between February 22 and March 5, 2011
In February 2011, increasing instability in Libya raised the specter of imminent war. To ensure the safety of Chinese nationals there, the Chinese government coordinated one of the largest organized evacuations of Chinese nationals since 1949, requisitioning chartered planes and ships, and leasing more than 20 foreign cruise liners.
Over 12 days, the Chinese government shuttled about 36,000 Chinese home, nearly 40 percent of whom took a respite on the island of Crete along the way thanks to the Greek government’s support.
2011 was not the first time Greece helped evacuate Chinese nationals. In 1997 and 2006, Greece dispatched naval vessels to help evacuate Chinese nationals from Albania and Lebanon. In July 2014, with the situation in Libya growing increasingly dire, Greece dispatched a battleship and evacuated 79 Chinese nationals and a dozen citizens from other countries.
Highlight #3: Chinese shipping giant COSCO acquired on October 25, 2016 a majority stake in the Greek port of Piraeus
Southwest of Athens, Piraeus is Greece’s biggest port and a major gateway to the Middle East, north Africa and the Black Sea.
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, with the port business hemorrhaging, the Greek government, in its effort to privatize the port, turned to China for help.
In June 2008, China Ocean Shipping Company, or COSCO, acquired Piraeus’s No. 2 and No. 3 piers for 498 million euros (US$533 million), which allowed the Chinese shipping giant to run the piers for a lease of 35 years. Soon after the deal, with the Greek debt crisis festering in 2010, the port again fell into a vicious circle of disrepair and worker strikes, struggling on the verge of bankruptcy.
At this critical juncture, Chinese government stepped in again, not only providing Greek government with loans, but also persuading Chinese businesses to increase their investment in Greece. From 2012 to 2014, COSCO invested 553 million euros in the port, completing two pier renovating project, a solid two years ahead of the deadline provided in the acquisition deal.
On October 25, 2016, in a ceremony held through video links between Beijing, Athens and Piraeus, COSCO acquired a majority 67 percent stake in the port.
Under the operation of COSCO, in 2021 Piraeus set historic records in terms of revenues and growth in throughput, with its placement in terms of TEUs handled rising from the 93rd place in 2010 to the 26th place in 2020, becoming one of the fastest-growing containerized ports in the world, and the No. 1 port in the Mediterranean.
After Greece formally joined the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC Cooperation), with Piraeus port as the point of departure along the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route, it promises to become a shortcut facilitating communication between China and Central and East European countries. China also stands ready to work together with Greece to pursue high-quality Belt & Road Initiative cooperation.
Highlight #4: China and Greece jointly launched the Ancient Civilizations Forum on April 24, 2017
Both China and Greece boast an ancient and long-standing civilization which advocates mutual respect, and are both proponents for – and practitioners of – dialogue, exchanges and emulation between different civilizations.
On April 24, 2017, in actively responding to the then Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias’ initiative, China, together with Greece, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Peru and Bolivia, launched Ancient Civilizations Forum in Athens to push for dialogue between global civilizations.
Highlight #5: Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Greece on November 10-12, 2019
With buildup of mutual trust, in 2019 the interactions between leaders of the two countries reached a historically new height. In May, former Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos attended the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing, and paid a state visit to China. During the second China International Import Expo (CIIE) held in Shanghai on November 5-10 in 2019, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis led a delegation to attend the event as one of the guest countries of honor.
Less than a week later, at the invitation of the Greek president, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Greece from November 10 to 12.
Xi’s visit to Greece is historical in carrying forward the cause of Sino-Greek friendship and forging ahead into the future. The two sides issued a joint statement on strengthening their comprehensive strategic partnership, as part of the efforts to, in light of traditionally good Sino-Greek relations, push forward the strategic partnership through pragmatic cooperation and dialogues between civilizations.
As Xi has pointed out, there is plenty of empathy between great ancient civilizations. China and Greece should delve deeper into their ancient civilizations and, taking historical responsibility commensurate with their ancient civilizations, jointly build a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, equity, justice and mutually beneficial cooperation, with a view to building a community with a shared future for mankind.
(The author is a researcher at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and head of the Institute of International Relations. Wan Lixin translated the article from Chinese.)