Greece 'natural ally' in boosting trade: China's Xi

John HADOULIS
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Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews the honor guard during a wreath laying ceremony at the monument of the unknown soldier in Athens on Novemper 11, 2019, as part of his state visit to Greece

Greece is a "natural ally" in China's global trade expansion plans, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Monday during a three-day state visit.

"Both China and Greece see each other as natural allies in developing the Belt and Road," Xi said at the start of a state visit aimed at deepening cooperation with Greece across the board, adding his desire to "keep the momentum going" and "reinforce" bilateral relations.

Greece is one of the backers of China's Belt and Road plan for a massive network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe that will see trillions invested in new infrastructure across 126 countries.

Greek and Chinese delegations signed over a dozen agreements, including an extradition accord, agricultural export deals and an agreement to open the first Bank of China branch in Athens.

The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China will also open a representative office in Greece, officials said.

The agreements signed Monday will "unleash potential in energy, transport and financial cooperation," Xi said.

"The road we open will soon become a highway," said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

The Chinese foreign ministry had earlier noted that Xi's visit to Athens will have "historical significance" for the development of China-Greece relations, and will also "inject new impetus" into the development of China-EU relations and Beijing's "Belt and Road" initiative.

"Relations with Greece are a priority for China," Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told Thema radio on Thursday.

"They came and invested in Greece when others stayed away" during the economic crisis, Dendias said.

- 'How can I help you?' -

Xi's visit comes on the heels of a four-day trip to Shanghai by Greece's new conservative Prime Minister Mitsotakis last week at the head of a delegation of more than 60 businessmen.

Elected in July, Mitsotakis has made foreign investment and privatisation a linchpin of his administration's policy to restore Greece's sluggish economy to growth after a gruelling 10-year crisis.

"I want the first words by Greek authorities to those who come to invest to be 'how can I help you?'" said Mitsotakis, who plans to visit China again in April.

Greece has been building progressively closer trade relations with China for more than a decade, spearheaded by a 2008 deal by a previous conservative government to cede container terminals at the main port of Piraeus to Chinese shipping giant Cosco.

Mitsotakis was set to tour the facilities with Xi later on Monday.

Cosco has already invested some 600 million euros ($660 million) in Piraeus, creating 3,000 jobs, and the total could reach one billion euros, Mitsotakis said during his Shanghai visit.

According to the Greek government, Greek shipowners have also built more than 1,000 vessels worth over $50 billion (45 billion euros) in China in the past 15 years.

- 'Golden Visa' -

Greece hopes to increase the number of direct flights between the two countries as it aims for the number of Chinese who visit to rise by more than a quarter to 250,000 per year.

Over 5,000 Chinese have purchased property in Greece, taking advantage of a five-year 'Golden Visa' residence programme launched in 2013.

Cosco in 2008 acquired Piraeus' two main container terminals on a 35-year lease. In 2016 it also took over the Piraeus port authority -- and the third remaining container terminal -- until 2052.

Greece has also signed up to China's new "Belt and Road" project, a $1 trillion global investment programme aiming to forward Chinese goods to markets further afield.

After Greece, Xi will travel to the BRICS summit in Brazil from November 13 to 14.

Xi will attend the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum, the closed-door meeting of leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as well as a public meeting, and issue a joint declaration.

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