Editor`s Note: Amid the overall enthusiasm about the China-proposed Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, some concerns have been expressed about the sprawling plan. On the afternoon of December 8, George Papandreou (GP), former prime minister of Greece and current president of Socialist International, gave a lecture at the 30th forum of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China (RDCY), with the theme of "Belt and Road Initiative and China-EU Cooperation: From the Greek Perspective". After the lecture, he talked to Global Times reporter Li Qiaoyi (GT) in an exclusive interview, offering his observations about how to address B&R-related concerns. Papandreou, who was one of the central figures in the Greek debt crisis, also shared his thoughts on Greece`s economic outlook and China-Europe cooperation from a Greek perspective.
GT: There have recently been some concerns over setbacks encountered by Chinese firms as they explore infrastructure projects in markets along route of the B&R initiative. What do you think about the setbacks and what should China do to handle them?
GP: The B&R is a Chinese-proposed initiative, but it has to be inclusive of the needs of other countries also. It`s a question of trying to form a common strategy that will be beneficial for all sides. I remember when we found in Greece that we had some oil, and we were then also saying we could link with some other countries. Once you cross the border, it`s not simply an infrastructure project. So the politics of this would be important. But it`s very important to create peaceful cooperation. So this, I think, is what underlies the initiative, which makes it more complicated but more important for the world.
GT: What do you think are the most common concerns among Central and Eastern European countries about the implementation of the B&R initiative?
GP: The basic concerns would be how we integrate it into the wider region. And I think that`s a concern also for China, because China wants the B&R initiative to be integrated into a wider region.
GT: What still needs to be done to clear up concerns and misunderstandings about the initiative?
GP: Obviously, the cooperation between Europe and China needs to be taken into account. I`ve been on the advisory board for the Silk Road Think Tank Association. We had an idea to bring in the countries and regions in South East Europe, Central Europe and a number of other countries and Chinese authorities to sit down and talk about the B&R initiative, to discuss what kind of projects there will be, what the benefits will be, and how we can coordinate. This kind of program of exchanges, cultures, seminars, workshops and public information could be very important. And this could be done in Greece, but we could also do it in other parts of Europe too, so the European public would understand the importance of this initiative.
I attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing. I was impressed by the attendance and President Xi Jinping`s speech about the vision for the B&R initiative. I think the most important thing is to participate, to be part of it. Countries in Europe and the EU should basically say let`s participate, let`s sit down together and see how we make this a win-win situation rather than being defensive. Europe can be a major contributor to investment in the initiative, which would be helpful also for China.
GT: The Greek government recently claimed that a deal between the country and international creditors is around the corner. But concerns remain over the structure of Greek debt and the outlook for the Greek economy and the entire eurozone economy. What`s your take on this?
GP: The Greek debt issue is partly based on the international financial crisis, partly the eurozone structure and partly the governance in Greece which I took over [as prime minister in 2009]. So I had to make big reforms in Greece. We had to make changes in the structure of the eurozone and of course in the markets, to show the strength in the bonds of Greece and of other countries. But there`s still quite a large amount of debt, which is basically owned not by the financial markets but by the government of the EU and also by the IMF. What is being discussed, which I would support, is some form of lightening of the debt, so that it`s not so heavy on the Greek people. Even though we`re more stable, the high taxes and the high costs of servicing the debt are slowing growth. We need to give a boost to the Greek economy and to ease the debt burden. There have been discussions about extending the period of repayment for a number of years, to keep the rates of interest low and maybe have a few more years of grace period. That would create more confidence in the market that Greece is now on a good path.
GT: China has made a substantial commitment to the Greek economy, notably COSCO Shipping`s purchase of a stake in the Port of Piraeus, which was hailed as a milestone B&R project. But this has stirred debate over whether China is seeking greater influence in Europe. What`s your view of this?
GP: My belief is that China is focusing on its economic interests. The country`s investment in Greece and other countries is beneficial by increasing trade and also by bringing in more sustainable economic development. Europe is one of the biggest markets globally, so lots of people are interested in the European market. Of course we have political discussions between the EU and China, but the relations have generally become closer and more positive, and it`s in the interests of Europe and China to work more closely together. In the Middle East and Africa, where there is quite a bit of instability and conflict, we should see the B&R initiative as something that can create stability and peace. This will also offer more growth as trade will develop more in these areas. So it`s not just between China and Europe.
I have always said that we should see the B&R as a mutual initiative. That`s how we should approach it.
GT: What benefits have the Greek people received from China`s investment in the country?
GP: When you have large investment like that, it creates a sense of confidence and credibility for other investors. That means others would come and then also there are more synergies. So if you have COSCO investing in the Port of Piraeus for services, then these services will lead to other forms of investment. It has also provided jobs, opened up new companies and given new prospects. In Piraeus, which is quite a big city, we are seeing urban regeneration. For example, factories used to be closed and there was a lack of hotels. Now we are seeing investment coming there to build these areas up, making it attractive to newcomers, travelers and investors, not only from China.
Of course there are mutual benefits, because Chinese products can more quickly and efficiently come to the European market.
GT: The US, Europe, and China are divided on whether China should be granted market economy status at the WTO. What impact will the division have on the global economy and on China`s economic cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries?
GP: I think we need to move more quickly on giving China market economy status. Obviously there are issues of harmonizing some rules and regulations, but that should be something we can negotiate, and that would be beneficial for both China and Europe. Europe has a lot to gain from investing in areas such as new technology and infrastructure, and should not fear competitiveness from China.
Greece is positive toward working closely with China. With the B&R initiative, there are a lot of opportunities for cooperation and building good relations and ensuring peace and stability. We are talking about products and markets, but one of the bigger issues is the war in Syria, the problems in Africa, migration and some other conflicts. If we could use the B&R initiative to help solve some of these issues, that would be much more beneficial than just enabling closer markets. We have to be much more open to Chinese cooperation in these areas.