Germany agrees to controversial sale of Hamburg port terminal

Germany has struck a compromise over a controversial move to permit a Chinese shipping group to purchase a stake in a terminal at Hamburg port.

The deal is contentious because, at a time when Germany is attempting to wean itself off Russian energy imports, it’s seen as increasing dependency on China.

The acquisition could open up the possibility of Beijing politically instrumentalising a part of Germany’s — and Europe’s — critical infrastructure.

On Wednesday, Germany’s government agreed to permit COSCO Shipping to accumulate a stake of lower than 25%, as a substitute of the previously planned 35%.

Germany’s economic affairs ministry said the choice was made to stop a “strategic investment” by COSCO within the terminal and “reduces the acquisition to a purely financial investment”.

Whether the Chinese company needs to be permitted to take part in the port’s ownership had produced a political dispute as Germany wrestled with the results of its dependence on Russian natural gas.

Lawmakers from the Green party and the Free Democrats, which formed a governing coalition last yr with Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, openly criticised the unique proposal last week. 

Six German government ministries initially rejected it on the grounds that COSCO, already the port’s biggest customer, could get an excessive amount of leverage.

“The explanation for the partial prohibition is the existence of a threat to public order and safety,” the economic affairs ministry said.

The one-quarter threshold can’t be exceeded in the long run with no recent investment review process, the German ministry said.

It added that COSCO is prohibited from contractually granting itself veto rights over strategic business or personnel decisions.

‘Cooperation needs to be useful’

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin reacted to the newest developments during a usually scheduled news conference.

“Cooperation needs to be mutually useful,” Wang said. “We hope the relevant party will see practical cooperation between China and Germany in a rational manner and stop unwarrantedly hyping the difficulty.”

Scholz, who is ready to travel to China early next month with a delegation of German business representatives, was in favour of COSCO’s participation in an HHLA deal, German media reported.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had argued that Berlin needed to avoid repeating with China the mistakes it made with Russia. 

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also warned against becoming too depending on China.

“We have now to learn lessons, and learning the lesson means we’ve to cut back unilateral dependencies wherever possible, and that applies to China specifically,” Steinmeier told public broadcaster ARD during a Tuesday visit to Ukraine.

German intelligence agencies said earlier this month that China’s funds might develop into a risk for Germany, particularly due to the strong economic and scientific ties between the 2 countries.

At a hearing with lawmakers, the top of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Thomas Haldenwang, made a comparison with the present geopolitical turmoil from the war in Ukraine, saying that “Russia is the storm, China is climate change”.

COSCO also holds stakes in several other European ports, including the Greek port of Piraeus.


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