The Chinese state-owned group is obtaining a 24.9% stake in a freight terminal at the port of Hamburg. The intended participation in the port infrastructure was politically extremely
controversial. But if the Berlin government would have turned down the plan, Cosco container ships would probably only very rarely have called at Hamburg.
Around two years after negotiations began, the controversial entry of the Chinese state-owned group Cosco into a Hamburg container terminal has finally been okayed. Following completion of the investment appraisal procedure, the port company HHLA and Cosco signed the contracts for a minority shareholding in the Tollerort terminal, according to the company.
This means that a 24.9% stake will be acquired by a Cosco subsidiary for the amount of 42 million euros. The terminal will become a preferred handling point for Cosco, the Chinese box carrier stated after the contract had been inked. Port developer Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG, a leading European logistics and stevedoring company, said that okaying the Cosco investment would strengthen Hamburg's position as a logistics hub in the North Sea and Baltic regions, as well as its leading role as an industrial, logistics and trade center in Germany and northern Europe.
China is Germany's largest trading partner, greatly benefitting the port of Hamburg. Around 30% of the goods handled there originate in China or are shipped to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, or Dalian.
From 35+% down to 24.9%
Originally, Beijing government owned Cosco intended to acquire at least 35% of the terminal operating company. However, several German federal ministries vetoed this advance arguing that a sea terminal is part of the critical infrastructure to which China should not have influential access. Skeptics justified this with a growing political and economic system rivalry between Germany / the EU and China and to prevent the leakage of sensitive industrial and nautical data. After negotiations lasting almost two years, the Berlin government finally consented the sale of a 24.9% share package to Cosco subsidiary, COSCO Shipping Ports Limited (CSPL), preventing the Chinese naval giant from acquiring a blocking minority.
The local port industry welcomed the decision. Gunther Bonz, President of the Port of Hamburg Business Association, speaks of a “good result, which had been hampered and unnecessarily delayed by the long procedure at federal level.”
The investment in the Tollerort terminal in Hamburg is a further building block in the expansion of the state-owned Chinese Cosco Group. In Greece, the company owns the entire infrastructure of the port of Piraeus. In Rotterdam it is 35%, in Valencia 51%, in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge 85%, in Antwerp 20%, in Bilbao 39% and in Istanbul 26%.
“No vessel arrives or departs without Chinese consent”
Today, Piraeus in particular is seen as a model case of political naivety by the Brussels policymakers. In 2016, during the severe Greek economic crisis, the EU forced the privatization of the entire port, with the aim of reducing the debt of Athen’s national budget. As a result, Cosco took complete control of the port, paying 280 million euros – a bargain price. There was no EU-wide call for a tender, as is usually the case even for the construction of new bridges, bike paths, or sidewalks. Nor were there any serious contenders.
Today, Piraeus has become number four in Europe in tonnage throughput, behind Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg. "No ship arrives or departs that the Chinese don't want," commented a former Greek navy minister. Indeed, Piraeus is the maritime terminus of the naval Silk Road – stretching from China across the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. China already controls the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, with a naval base in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa.
Geopolitical experts therefore see Cosco's investment in Hamburg, even though it is only a minority stake of 24.9%, as part of a grand, long-term plan to expand Chinese influence through financial and infrastructural dependencies.
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