Xi Jinping comes to Greeks bearings gifts

Helena Smith in Athens
Photograph: Orestis Panagiotou/AP

A landmark visit to Greece by China’s president Xi Jinping has cemented what both countries are calling a “new era” in bilateral ties amid western concern over Beijing’s growing global assertiveness.

Athens rolled out the red carpet for Xi as the centre-right government sought to capitalise on Greece’s burgeoning role as China’s “gateway” to Europe.

“This visit opens a new chapter of decisive importance in the already excellent relations between China and Greece,” said the Greek president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, addressing a dinner held in honour of the leader Monday night. “[It] fundamentally upgrades our strategic partnership,” he added after the two sides signed 16 trade deals in areas as diverse as banking, tourism and solar energy.

The three-day tour is Xi’s first to Athens. It comes barely a week after the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, returned from Shanghai where the Chinese president raised the prospect of Greece becoming “a logistics centre” for the transhipment of western-bound Chinese goods.

Related: Greece blocks EU's criticism at UN of China's human rights record

Meeting Mitsotakis earlier on Monday, Xi vowed to “deepen cooperation” between countries he firmly believes are closely bonded by a shared sense of historical heritage. “We are both ancient civilisations and should join hands to deliver greater benefits to our peoples,” he told the Greek PM.

The exchange of such high-level talks in quick succession has illuminated the significance Beijing now gives Greece as Xi forges ahead with his signature foreign policy goal of bolstering Chinese connectivity with the world through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Fears of China’s spreading influence have grown dramatically since Cosco, the state-run shipping company, won a 35-year concession to take over and manage cargo piers in Piraeus. The strategic port has become emblematic of the country’s investment in Greece. A decade later an estimated 10% of Chinese exports to Europe are thought to move through Piraeus, making it a direct competitor to continental ports further north such as Hamburg and Rotterdam.

Within hours of bilateral discussions getting under way on Monday, Athens formally endorsed Cosco expanding operations in the port with a €600m project or “masterplan” that will see Chinese investment approach €2.5bn in Greece. The project is aimed squarely at accelerating Piraeus’ role as a hub for Chinese containers that can now save millions in shipping costs travelling from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal.

Mitsotakis, who visited the Cosco piers with Xi, said the two seafaring nations were united in wanting to make Piraeus “not only the largest port in the Mediterranean but in Europe.” In an editorial published in Kathimerini on the eve of his arrival, the Chinese president described the investment “as the dragon’s head.”

With Greece’s debt-stricken economy only slowly recovery from financial crisis, Athens is eager to tap China’s massive market with exports such as olive oil and wine. The pro-business government, which assumed power barely four months ago, is also keen to attract further foreign investment viewed as vital to generating growth and jobs in a EU member state where unemployment remains extraordinarily high at 17.3%.

The visit has also required the Greek prime minister to walk a diplomatic tight rope.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, warned the Nato ally during a visit in October against accepting Chinese deals that look “too good to be true”. In a keynote speech he accused China of “using economic means to coerce countries into lopsided deals that benefit Beijing and leave its clients mired in debt”.

Greek interaction with Beijing – including Athens’ refusal under its previous leftist-led government to endorse a EU statement deploring human rights violations in China – has fed suspicion in western capitals. Fears were raised further when the former prime minister Alexis Tsipras announced in April that Greece would join the Beijing-led “17 +1” cooperation platform of central and eastern European countries despite vocal EU criticism of the grouping undermining the bloc’s unity. The move came less than a year after Athens also agreed to sign up to China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative.

“Geopolitically, western partners are concerned that Greece’s flirtation with China may weaken the south-eastern flank of Nato and the EU,” said Plamen Tonchev, head of the Asia unit at the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens. “Mitsotakis will have a hard time convincing them that Greece is not a Trojan horse. He will have to deliberately double down to ensure that business with China does not undermine Athens’ allegiance to the west.”

Before leaving late on Tuesday, Xi will visit the 5th century BC Acropolis, the highlight of his visit, according to members of the Chinese delegation. “In the east civilisation sprung from China, in the west it sprung from Greece,” enthused Luo Tong, a prominent Greek scholar who guided China’s former president Hu Jintao around the monument when he visited Athens in November 2008. “Together we are a bridge of history,” she told the Guardian standing within view of the site. “We Chinese know that if we want to connect with the western world we have to understand Greece.”