Cultural and economic ties draw China and Greece closer

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-18 18:33:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is on his third official visit to Europe since taking office, and will visit Greece on Thursday after arriving in the UK earlier this week. This decision alone confirms the importance China attributes to Greece and vice versa as well as the potential for further deepening of the bilateral relationship.

The attention of most analysts and scholars is attracted by the economic and investment aspect of the cooperation network. The determination of the Chinese government to buy Greek sovereign bonds in the first dramatic years of the Greek crisis drove this chorus.

In parallel with this, the investment of Chinese-owned COSCO in the Piraeus Port as well as the business development of various Chinese companies in Greece have had the lion's share in discussions between political elites of the two countries.

It is not a coincidence that Beijing and Athens are committed to closely cooperate on infrastructure projects in the future, including shipping, logistics, ports, airports and maritime affairs.

Economics themselves, however, only constitutes one side of the multidimensional Sino-Greek relationship. Culture is an issue not often covered in the media discourse, but that strongly links China and Greece.

The fact that the two countries represent two of the most significant ancient civilizations of the world should not be ignored. It can be an ideal basis for shaping diplomatic tactics in the modern era.

Premier Li has decided to combine his official trip to Greece not only by visiting the Acropolis Museum in Athens but also by travelling to the island of Crete and going to the Knossos Palace and Archaeological Site and the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

Prime Minister of Greece Antonis Samaras also had a similar cultural program when he visited China in May 2013.

Within this context, Beijing and Athens have decided to focus on cultural exchanges and strengthen the academic and research ties among national universities, institutions and individuals.

The Confucius Institute situated in Athens, for example, has already started to play a critical role for the learning of the Chinese language in Greece.

On the same wavelength, Greek letters and language are actively promoted in several universities in China.

There can be no better gift promised and given to the young generation of Chinese and Greek students and professionals than the increase of scholarships and grants to visit the other country respectively.

Furthermore, the depth of the Sino-Greek relationship can be better illustrated, if emphasis is laid on how people perceive its steady improvement.

According to a poll organized by the University of Piraeus, approximately 65 percent of respondents in Greece want to visit China, 43 percent consider Chinese as the "language of the future" and over 80 percent believe that China can financially support Greece.

The same survey also demonstrates that the majority of Greeks portray China is a rising superpower that will in the long run surpass the US.

For their part, Chinese citizens are keen on visiting Greece. The data of the Association of Greek tourism enterprises suggests that the number of Chinese tourists has shown an impressive increase in recent years. In particular, the specific number for 2012 was 12,203 tourists, which went up to 28,328 tourists in 2013.

Predictions for 2014 are even more optimistic regarding arrivals in Greece from China.

It should be also mentioned that since mid-2013, many Chinese citizens have the opportunity to acquire a long-term entry visa in Greece, if they decide to buy a property worth 250,000 euros or more. This decision by the Greek government has boosted the bilateral real estate cooperation.

Critics of the Sino-Greek deepening of relations accuse China for attempting to exploit an economically weak country in order to penetrate the Europe and reinforce its bargaining position at the EU and NATO level, where Greece belongs.

Nonetheless, a more open-minded approach would see this deepening as a natural development within a world becoming increasingly multipolar and requiring flexibility and perspicacity in foreign policy choices.

The author is a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

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