Photo taken on Sept. 18, 2018 shows a terminal operated by COSCO Shipping at Zeebrugge Port in Belgium. (Xinhua/Ye Pingfan)
By Li Jizhi, Liu Yongqiu, Liu Fang
ATHENS/BRUSSELS/HAGUE/HELSINKI, Oct. 12 (Xinhua) -- Upon entering the ship repair zone at the port of Piraeus, southern Greece, one could easily notice the immense floating dock painted in black and red and mirrored in the glossy Aegean Sea.
Not far from the giant dock is a much smaller old one, lying idle, rusty.
The "Piraeus 3" that arrived in March from Shanghai, eastern China, has greatly improved the capacity of the local ship repair business, a regional pillar industry hard hit in the debt crisis, according to Li Weina, general manager of the shipyard.
MORE JOBS SECURED
Running the shipyard at Piraeus has been the first concrete project since 2016, when China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) took over the operation of the port of Piraeus. The port is seen as the southern gate of Europe.
On Sept. 28, Greek Parliament Speaker Nikolaos Voutsis visited the Piraeus Port Authority. A press release issued by the parliament said that Piraeus was the fastest growing port in the world, now ranking 7th place in Europe and 37th worldwide based on the projects carried out in recent years.
"The investment of COSCO Shipping in the port of Piraeus has proved to be mutually beneficial to both sides and it is important that it, in a difficult period, helps the country overcome the crisis," Voutsis was quoted as saying.
Following the Greek debt crisis that broke out in 2009, thousands of workers lost their jobs and machines were down at the port. The picture is different now -- some 3,000 people are hired to do the services outsourced by COSCO, and even thousands more jobs have been created in the peripheral industries since COSCO made the 1-billion-euro (1.15 billion-U.S.-dollar) investment.
A similar scenario is seen in Belgium, western Europe, where COSCO acquired the port of Zeebrugge in late 2017 and brought in strategic investors in 2018.
COSCO bought 76 percent shares of the Zeebrugge port in November 2017, and plans to build a diversified logistics service platform, together with the Zeebrugge Port Authority, to serve the entire continent and the British Isles.
Standing at the crossroads of northwestern Europe, the port of Zeebrugge is located on the shore of North Sea, reaching the Hamburg-Le Havre area, facing Britain across the strait, and connects to the railway network extending to the rest of Europe.
TRADE GROWTH WITNESSED
Before the acquirement of the port of Piraeus, COSCO had participated in its operation for eight years already, helping enlarge tremendously the throughput from 680,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) in 2008 to 4.15 million TEU in 2017.
A TEU is one 20-foot-long cargo container or its equivalent.
Encouraged by the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, a water-land express has been established to link the port terminals to the China-Europe railroads, along which the cargo trains are now running at a frequency of 17 trips per week inbound and outbound at the port.
Greece is not the only European country that has seen the rise of trade with China.
At the port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, its throughput of containers has been increasing in the past five years, with a quarter of its inbound cargo coming from China. Moreover, nearly half of China's deep-water cargo routes to Europe choose the largest European port as their first stop.
In northern Europe, COSCO's new fleet has started to dock at the Helsinki cargo port to help local pulp and wood producers increase their exports to the Chinese market. The modern ships with the latest design can take voyage both in the high north and down the Indian Ocean.
Finland is the world's largest exporter of softwood pulp, and about one-third of the pulp is exported to China. With the new vessels, which are particularly suitable to load pulp products, COSCO is expected to transport more than 1.1 million tons of Finnish goods to China in 2018, 30 percent higher than last year.
MARITIME TIES STRENGTHENED
Mutual economic benefits have been guaranteed by the improved maritime business -- more investment in ports, better design in cargo vessels and stronger link between harbors and railways.
All of this has gained momentum since the idea of building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road was put forward by China five years ago. The blueprint aims at economic rise along regions, including southeastern Asia, southwestern Asia, eastern Africa and many coastal areas in Europe.
The combination of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt is also popularly known as the Belt and Road. Trying to rejuvenate the ancient trade routes, the initiative calls for better connections and stresses common interests between different nations. It has been welcomed by European businesses and politicians.
"China's Belt and Road Initiative and the position of the Netherlands as the gateway to Europe offer further opportunities for cooperation," Hanneke Schuiling, director general for Foreign Economic Relations of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the audience during a ceremony in the Hague on Sept. 27 to celebrate China's National Day.
Concerns over the ambition are not non-existing though.
COSCO's investment in the port of Piraeus and its plans to upgrade the shipbuilding zone "will have to deal with the older mentality", said Elias Hajiefremidis, president of the Worldwide Industrial & Marine Association headquartered in Greece.
He admitted that the "rigidity" may come from public or private operators.
"However if there is communication between all the stakeholders that make up the chain, a common line will definitely be found, always in the light of the common interest," Hajiefremidis underlined.
"After sixty years of presence in the shipping industry as shipping agents operating in Piraeus and in the wider Greek area, we have always been convinced that anyone who deals with the sea will never be damaged," he told Xinhua.