The idea of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as a modern-day Odysseus seems a little far-fetched. However, China’s globetrotting president proved a match for Homer’s hero last week when he trundled a Trojan horse deep inside the EU city gates — with an enthusiastic helping push from the Greeks.
It was a classical, even epic, piece of opportunism.
Xi’s visit to Athens marked a breakthrough moment in China’s decades-long siege of Europe’s markets. A series of deals would raise its investment in Greece to about 2.5 million euros (US$2.77 billion).
More significantly, Xi expanded Beijing’s foothold in the strategic port of Piraeus, from whence a rising tide of Chinese imports flow into the EU.
By co-opting an EU and NATO member into his all-encompassing Belt and Road Initiative and effectively hiring it as a bespoke “gateway to Europe,” Xi advanced China’s overall global ambitions.
The demarche also highlights a bigger, possibly existential, challenge for the EU: How to avoid becoming the meat in the sandwich between a ravenous China and an increasingly unreliable, surly and hostile US.
A key platform in Beijing’s strategy is the so-called “17+1” group that comprises China, 16 central and east European countries and now Greece.
Leading EU powers such as Germany and France are suspicious, fearing the 17+1 is an attempt to divide Europe.
The EU Commission declared China a “systemic rival” in March after Xi embarked on another horse-trading expedition to Italy.
Recent speeches in Athens and Berlin by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have stressed the strategic and geopolitical dimension. He warned that Europe was being sucked into a nefarious Chinese web already spanning Asia, Africa and Latin America.
China was “using economic means to coerce countries into lopsided deals that benefit Beijing and leave its clients mired in debt,” Pompeo said.
China is trying to mitigate such fears. It has pledged to respect EU rules and agreed to a 17+1 statement referencing the “three pillars of the United Nations” — peace and security, human rights and development.
That was an obvious sop to Western concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Yet however it is presented, the advance of Chinese business, financial and political influence across Europe appears irresistible.
China is already the EU’s largest trading partner. Chinese mega-companies such as Huawei Technologies Co are on the march, defying US opposition.
Austerity-hit countries crave investment, from any source. Last week saw another symbolic power play, with Jingye Group’s purchase of British Steel.
EU leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the presumed heir to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are well aware of Xi’s advance from the east.
AKK, as she is known, recently suggested Germany should support “our partners in the Indo-Pacific region” who feel threatened by China’s new military assertiveness.
For risk-averse Berlin, that is a big deal.
Right now, with a NATO summit due in London early next month, AKK and others are looking the other way — at the vexed question of US President Donald Trump’s administration’s waning commitment to transatlantic cooperation in general, and NATO in particular.
Macron produced his own Trojan horse last week, suggesting the alliance might be superseded by what he fondly calls a “European defense union.”