Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi to visit Greece and Spain this week

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi will visit Greece and Spain this week, as part of an unusual arrangement of back-to-back European visits by two high-level Chinese foreign policy officials.

Analysts say this signals Beijing's urgency to prevent further European strategic rebalancing in favour of the US, but neither European country would favour Beijing at the expense of Brussels or Washington. Both Spain and Greece are facing increasing pressure to take sides between their security alliance with the US and vast business interest with China.

President Xi Jinping made state visits to both countries in the last two years, with Yang present on both occasions. This time, however, Yang will be visiting a Europe which has turned much more wary of Beijing after the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chinese foreign ministry on Monday announced Yang's trip, which also includes a stop in Myanmar, confirming a report by the South China Morning Post.

French President Emmanuel Macron (at right) meets with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, last week. Photo: Xinhua alt=French President Emmanuel Macron (at right) meets with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, last week. Photo: Xinhua

Yang, a member of the Politburo, is widely considered the highest-ranking diplomat within the Chinese Communist Party.

His main portfolio involves handling Sino-US relations, a theme that is expected to reverberate on his European trip, which will closely follow Foreign Minister Wang Yi's trip to five other European countries.

Wang during his current trip criticised Czech politicians for visiting Taiwan and warned the Nobel Peace Prize committee not to award Hong Kong protesters - neither gesture considered conducive to alleviating EU officials' worries over Beijing's "wolf warrior diplomacy".

"China is trying to regain ground, amidst the massive pushback it is facing and visibly deteriorating relations with Europeans across the board," said Plamen Tonchev, a China expert at the Athens-based Institute of International Economic Relations.

"Greece matters, as it used to be one of China's staunchest supporters in Europe until recently, and hosts one of the most successful and visible Belt and Road Initiative projects," Tonchev added, referring to the port of Piraeus in which China's state-owned COSCO Shipping owns a 51 per cent stake.

During Xi's visit to Athens, China and Greece agreed to push ahead with a €600 million ($717 million) investment by COSCO, including mandatory investments of €300 million ($359 million) by 2022 which once concluded will allow it to acquire an additional 16 per cent stake in the port.

Under former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, Greece was considered by Beijing to be one of the most reliable partners in the EU, as its poor economic outlook attracted massive Chinese investment.

Amid diplomatic criticism, Greece helped torpedo an EU statement on Chinese human rights violations in 2017.

But the US has stepped up efforts to build closer ties since the electoral victory last year of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a Harvard graduate.

The US is reportedly interested in the upcoming privatisation of the Alexandroupolis port in northern Greece, near the land border with Turkey, Tonchev noted.

Meanwhile, COSCO's plan for an increased share in the Piraeus port also comes at a time when the EU has turned more hawkish to the expansion of China's takeovers of Europe's strategic assets, especially under the coronavirus pandemic where the EU fears Chinese capital would be snapping up critical infrastructure at a time of market volatility.

The European Commission in June proposed in a white paper scrutiny over mergers and acquisitions funded by "state aid" from foreign governments - which would pose an impact on Chinese state-owned enterprises.

In Spain, Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said on Monday that Europe "has to redefine how it wants to face the geostrategic situation" exacerbated by the US-China tension.

"The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already there: The polarisation of international relations between China and the United States, technological advancement and digitisation, and an erosion of the multilateral system of checks and balances," she told Spanish newspaper El Pais.

"It has accelerated weapons such as disinformation or interference through cybersecurity," Gonzalez added. "We have to promote greater European strategic autonomy, beyond pure defence."

Her predecessor, current European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, recently referred to China as a "new empire" and called on the 27 member states to correct the economic imbalances with Beijing before it is "too late".

Spain's Telefonica, Europe's fourth-largest telecoms group, was planning to drastically reduce the amount of equipment it buys from Huawei for the core of its 5G networks in Europe, the company said in December last year.

Mario Esteban, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, said he was pessimistic that Yang's visit to Madrid would yield much success.

"Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will align with Brussels, instead of Beijing," Esteban said. "If forced, Spain would side with the US because of economic and strategic interests, not China."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.