China’s BRI Geopolitical Maritime Investments in the European Union’s Shipping Industry, European Union’s Reaction and Implications for South-South Relations

By John Njenga Karugia

China is purchasing stakes in strategic ports across the European Union with varying dynamics observable in each deal including its latest purchase at Germany’s Hamburg harbor. China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) which is one of the world’s largest shipping companies has also purchased shares in sea ports in: Belgium, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and Greece. These maritime investments are in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 proposition to invest in a 21st century Maritime Silk Road which is a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Ten years ago, during a speech[i] in the Parliament of Indonesia, Xi Jinping emphasized that: “China cannot achieve development in isolation from the world, and the world also needs China for development. China is fully committed to the path of peaceful development, the independent foreign policy of peace and the opening-up strategy for win-win results.” The Chinese government perceives the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road as encompassing two routes.[ii] The first route commences from China’s sea ports, crosses South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, the Indian Ocean and extends onwards to Europe. The second route commences from Chinese sea ports, crossing South China Sea, and extending to the South Pacific. After the Greek economic crisis, China saw the chance and took the risk to invest in Greece’s maritime sector. After the “China-Greece Maritime Cooperation Year” in[iii] 2015, just when the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) demanded privatization of the strategic sea port of Piraeus in Athens as a condition of a rescue plan for Greece’s economy, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) took over Piraeus harbor in 2016. China acquired a 51% majority shareholding of the strategic Mediterranean Piraeus harbor in Athens which was recently increased to 67%.[iv] During a 2019 visit[v] to the Piraeus harbor, President Xi Jinping noted that Piraeus is “an important bridgehead and transit point” for the BRI.[vi]


A ship waiting to dock at Piraeus harbor. Photo by: John Njenga Karugia


Europe’s largest harbor, the Rotterdam harbor in the Netherlands followed shortly after. After China acquired a minority shareholding of 17.85% of the Rotterdam port in 2016, China Daily[vii] noted the strategic importance of the Rotterdam harbor due to its location “at the junction of the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and ocean-going 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” which are key trade routes for Europe, Africa and Asia’s population of about 5 billion people.