Hello Plamen, We have a lot of younger people who subscribe that are looking into careers in the think tank / academia / journalism worlds. Do you have any advice for them as to how to get started?

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May 16, 2020Liked by Wade Shepard

A short answer: I don't think I can be a role model.

Now, a long one:

- Travel, as much as you can! But not just for the sake of posting pictures of yourselves on Instagram. Travel for the sake of meeting people, and listening to their stories and perspectives, even if you happen to disagree.

- Read! Before you set foot in another country, make sure you've read stuff about its history. Nothing comes from nothing! ("Οὐδὲν ἕξ οὐδενός" in Greek or "Ex nihilo nihil fit" in Latin) - meaning that any nation's culture, political set-up and economy are rooted in that nation's history. If you want to understand - sorry, suspect - what's going on in a foreign country, start reading stuff about its history and move on towards the present.

- Academic work or journalism? Become a think-tanker or a field worker? I would say, start in the field, and then try to put things on paper and convey your thoughts to others.

- But regardless of the professional area you choose, be patient! Push ahead, but it may take some time before you achieve your goals. Think of yet another ancient Greek proverb (apologies!): "Σπεῦδε βραδέως" or "Festina lente" in Latin, which means "Make Haste Slowly". (I love this phrase and a couple of years ago made it the title of a talk I gave on sustainable connectivity.)

Good luck and have fun!


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Also, how does the general population in Greece feel about Chinese investment in their country (at Piraeus, etc)?

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Morning, Jack - just saw your message.

Several years ago, at the height of the Greek crisis (you will remember the talk about Grexit and all that), there was an outburst of anti-European and anti-western sentiment in the country. Back then, many Greeks, including the Tsipras government, viewed China (as well as Russia, Iran and Venezuela!) as an alternative to much-vilified western partners - we've captured this in a recent IIER report, "China's Image in Greece, 2008-2018" (http://idos.gr/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/China-Image-in-Greece_9-10-2018.pdf).

In the past, people hoped that Chinese investment would help revive the Greek economy and, of course, Piraeus is a very visible case. COSCO's investment in Piraeus is very successful in managerial and operational terms - the throughput of the port has gone up from some 700,000 twenty-foot container equivalent units (TEUs) in 2008 to more than 5m TEUs in 2019. At the same time, there's a big issue with the split of benefits and the deal clearly favours the Chinese side. For all that, given that Greece badly needs foreign investment, the current Greek government touts Piraeus as a success story and a proof that the country is "investment-friendly".

The impact of the Piraeus project on the Greek economy is limited. The number of jobs created does not exceed 7,000, including one-off jobs, whereas Greece has the highest unemployment rate in the EU. The money that goes into the state coffers is a tiny fraction of the profit margin of COSCO and other Chinese companies that promote their products to the European markets via Piraeus. Until recently, big Chinese SOEs were eager to get involved in the construction of new coal-fired units in northwestern Greece, but the Mitsotakis government's lignite divestiture policy has aborted those plans. During Xi's visit to Greece last November it was decided that Chinese solar-panel producers would invest in a solar farm in Crete. China's State Grid is a shareholder in the Greek high-voltage power transmission operator and is now involved in the construction of an underwater electricity link between Crete and continental Greece. By and large, there's room for Chinese investment in the country, but so far the volume has not lived up to initial expectations and there are many controversial issues. You may want to read this piece that I penned last November right after Xi's visit: https://chinaobservers.eu/xis-visit-to-greece-four-questions-waiting-to-be-answered/.

On the pandemic, a colleague of mine and I have written the chapter on Greece in a recent report released by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC): http://idos.gr/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/ETNC-Special-Report_Covid-19_China_Europe-2020.pdf.

Hope this helps, cheers,


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Plamen, what do you think will come of Greece's China relations after the fallout from the pandemic?

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Please, have a look at what I wrote above.

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Mr. Tonchev,

China is gaining control over harbors in Sri-Lanka, Djibouti, Israel & Greece. Is this part of the BRI / Beijing soft power or what?

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Thanks, Ilan E. - this is a very pertinent question! It's true that China's growing presence in sea ports around the world is a prominent part of its maritime transport drive. The Financial Times carried an eye-opening story in January 2017 titled "How China rules the waves" (https://ig.ft.com/sites/china-ports/). And I think that this goes way beyond the scope of the BRI - if you look at the map, it makes you think of a gigantic octopus spreading his tentacles on a global scale. Add to that China's ambition to increase its control of the global commercial fleet through shipping finance (https://jamestown.org/program/shipping-finance-chinas-new-tool-becoming-global-maritime-power/) and it looks like the port business is part of a much broader strategy, presumably aiming at global trade in its entirety. Let me tell you that in 2017 97% of trade volumes between Europe and Asia was sea-borne, though worth-wise it came down to a still-very-high 70% (as air-borne high-value products accounted for nearly 30%).

Djibouti is a gateway to eastern Africa, but it's also a naval base (officially a logistics hub) initially created to support the Chinese navy in combating piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. I think that in the future China may have to consider setting up other logistics hubs, not least because of its mushrooming assets overseas that need to be protected. For instance, it may be a matter of time before a "Mediterranean Djibouti" pops up, given China's growing presence in north Africa. In 2011, 36,000 Chinese workers had to be evacuated from Libya, and it was Greek, Italian and Maltese commercial ships that helped China back then. Nowadays, there are some 90,000 Chinese workers in Algeria alone...

Soft power, as defined by Joseph Nye, is something slightly different. It has to do with promoting Chinese culture and the country's attractiveness, mostly through the omnipresent Confucius Centers and Classrooms, scientific cooperation, scholarships, etc. Of course, Beijing uses its economic statecraft and soft power in an integrated way, so it's difficult to extricate one from the other.

Hope this helps, have a nice day,


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@Ilan E: Curiously, the situation as published about Chinese investments in Sri Lanka in the Western media are not the typical Sri Lankan position. Also, I live in Sri Lanka so have a better view. I explained to Plamen elsewhere about Hambantota, and you can see elsewhere on this page about that. I also wrote about the Hambantota issue over on Silk Road Briefing here: https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2018/04/23/chinas-belt-road-initiative-blamed-sri-lankas-hambantota-port-problems-real-story-rather-different/

Another project is Colombo Port City. That's on the West coast, and is set to be a major development for trade and container breakdown for Sri Lankan trade heading west (ie: away from China). There have been some issues with the terms, which include a 99 year lease. Some people think that China will use that as a military base, but the plans are for commercial and not military usage.

You can see those plans here: https://www.portcitycolombo.lk/ which include an independent economic impact assessment by PwC. No-one in Sri Lanka bar a few radical political voices see any issue with the development. CCCC, the Chinese partners, have put a lot into Sri Lanka over the years and have delivered. I know, because I also use the infrastructure they have built.

Meanwhile, CCCC are a listed company and they need to make investments for their shareholders. Colombo City Port is such an investment that should bring their shareholders joy for years to come. The other main investor is the Sri Lankan government, who will also be receiving dividends for decades to put into the national treasury. The amount that the Sri Lankan Government invested in terms of financing is zero. So what's not to like about that for the Sri Lankan government? Ultimately they will inherit a solid business CBD just as the Chinese did when the British returned Hong Kong. I don't recall international media complaining much about the Brits in Hong Kong up to 1997.

I see a lot of media criticize China's investments in countries like Sri Lanka. But I see what it brings, and live, use and benefit from it. So, from the horses mouth as it were, I don't see any problems with it - at all. What used to be a 5 hour drive from Colombo to my home is now 60 minutes along the Chinese built Southern Expressway. That makes a huge difference.

BTW have you seen the Lotus Tower in Colombo? Its the tallest building now in South-East Asia: https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2019/09/17/sri-lankas-capital-opens-south-east-asias-tallest-tower-using-belt-road-funding/

Here's another article to read: It's not about the infrastructure build, it's about the trade opportunity. So don't sweat it too much: https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2020/02/05/chinas-belt-road-initiative-trade-opportunity-stupid/

Best wishes


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99 Yrs lease is encroaching on S.L. sovereignty.

It's looks like predatory landing to me.

I read somewhere that only Chinese national are allowed in the harbor & the 15,000 acre investment zone, is that accurate?

Thank you

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@Ilan E: Well your statement "99 Yrs lease is encroaching on S.L. sovereignty" isn't backed up by any legal codes, so I think that's your personal opinion. It was signed off by the elected Sri Lankan government, so it all seems pretty ok to me. It was barren waste land before so I don't get your argument.

No, its not accurate that "only Chinese" are allowed into the area. Although much of it remains a building site and remains off-limits for normal safety reasons as construction is taking place, as is normal on any building site. Sri Lankan workers are also employed there.

Neither does the accusation make any sense, it's the site of Colombo's future CBD with office buildings, residential apartments, a marina and maritime walkway and park all being constructed - when they are ready.

You seem to imagine it being operated as an enclave, when it isn't. It's a building site, being developed with Chinese money and on which profits earned for the next 99 years will be split with the Sri Lankan government who invested zero capital into it. Put it this way: 30% of a multi-billion dollar investment for the next 99 years for free, or nothing? Which would you prefer to have?

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Hi Wade and thanks.

Hello Mr.Plamen.

Nowadays after the pandemic of Coronavirus, we are seeing that the EU is not as UNITED as they advertise!

I think if china pays more attention to several countries like Serbia - which is behind the door of the EU for many years -or Italy or other countries, it can destroy this union step by step and make a new political or economical union.

Hint: China has shown that it can do that and we can see 2 examples of their work in B&R and AIIB.

What's your opinion?

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May 15, 2020Liked by Wade Shepard

Hello, Reza - and thanks for this provocative question!

It is true that the EU is not as united as it could be. But the answer is a bit more nuanced than a black and white "yes" or "no". The EU is a unique "animal" - a union of 27 nation states, not a federation like the US nor a unitary state as China is. And it's a unique experiment that's had its failures, for sure, but it has also been largely successful. And China definitely needs Europe - both its market and political weight.

Not to mention Europe's soft power. Europe is becoming increasingly popular with Chinese people, not least because of the stand-off with the US and the growing acrimony with Australia. Before the pandemic broke out, Chinese citizens from the upper middle class were flocking in Europe not just as tourists, but also as buyers of real estate and applicants for Schengen Golden Visas. There are some interesting surveys showing that they appreciate Europe's rule of law, education and lifestyle, while back home they live in congested and increasingly expensive cities.

Yes, China and Serbia have come closely together, but this has little to do with China's appeal - it relates to a larger extent to Chinese money, Serbia's domestic politics and the country's tricky relationship with the EU, three decades after the dissolution of former Yugoslavia. Italy is living its "SYRIZA moment" - am referring to the radical SYRIZA coalition that ruled Greece between 2015 and 2019. Just like the SYRIZA government saw China as a potential ally against European creditors, Italy's current government (and, basically, the Five Star Movement) hopes that China can offer an alternative to Europe, but that's an illusion.

I don't think China can - or wants to - create a new political and economic union through the Belt and Road Initiative. Apart from tapping new markets, exporting its overcapacity (and pollution) and addressing its regional disparities (between coastal areas and western provinces), China does seek to expand its clout, but not with a view to any political and economic union. Rather, Beijing tries to install a modern version of the Ming dynasty's vassal system. And, of course, it has the ambition to shape up the process of globalisation in its own image, i.e. globalisation "with Chinese characteristics".

Hope this helps, cheers,


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Hi Plamen - so the EU believes that China wants the EU as a vassal state paying it tribute and “protected” by China when needed. That implies a loss of EU sovereignty. What evidence is there to suggest that?

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Morning, Chris - and thanks for chiming in!

I can only speak for myself - I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the EU, a very complex entity that even European citizens are struggling to understand.

I think that China is trying to promote a "vassal system" primarily in its neighbourhood, e.g. in Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, etc. And it casts a long shadow over the entire continent. Africa should also be factored in.

In Europe, Beijing has been trying to ingratiate Central and Eastern Europeans (17+1) and has been successful in certain cases (e.g. Hungary and Serbia), though there's been a pushback as well, judging from the recent diplomatic spats in Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia, etc.



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Ok, well I live in Sri Lanka, so we can take that as a good example. Perhaps you can give an opinion about how China is promoting a vassal state system in Sri Lanka? Some examples of that and what this actually means?

I think its important to be aware of how you feel the EU believes this is happening, and what the implications are.

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May 16, 2020Liked by Wade Shepard

Excellent, Chris, so we can draw on your insights into the situation in Sri Lanka!

Allow me to refer to two pieces that I've published on Sri Lanka, though they may be turning outdated with the passage of time:

- https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/along-road-%E2%80%93-sri-lanka%E2%80%99s-tale-two-ports

- https://www.lki.lk/blog/chinese-investment-in-greek-and-sri-lankan-sea-ports-analogies-and-lessons-learned/

I do not believe that Sri Lanka is an example of a deliberate "debt trap" strategy on the part of China. In fact, I think that Sri Lanka brought it upon itself, with Mahinda's overambitious economic policies between 2009 and 2014, and his "white elephant" projects financed through Chinese loans. But then Beijing wouldn't miss such a perfect opportunity to wield influence over the country, would it?

It is telling that:

- In the run-up to the presidential elections in January 2015, one of Maithripala Sirisena's key arguments related to overdependence on China.

- During the constitutional crisis in late 2018 Beijing was quick to side with Mahinda Rajapaksa - I wonder why?

Having said that, I would certainly appreciate your take on the Sri Lanka conundrum.


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Well hold on a second Plamen, first you mention "vassal states" now that seems downgraded to "white elephant" projects. One step at a time. I'm curious about how you determine what you mean by when you suggesting the vassal states issue. You haven't defined that yet. Or are you saying that China investing in "white elephants" makes that country a vassal state? Lets clear that issue up first because you mention not just Sri Lanka, but Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, etc. and what you mean by "China casts a long shadow over the entire continent. Africa should also be factored in" and then go on to mention state "Beijing has been trying to ingratiate Central and Eastern Europeans" and imply 'Hungary, Serbia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia, etc.'

So lets be clear by exactly what you mean about China and these, or some of these countries becoming "vassal states" first. You made that as a statement, so what do you mean by that? What in your mind qualifies these countries as being part of the vassal states mechanism you suggest? Lets deal with that first, then we can use Sri Lanka (and Estonia, as I also live part of the year there as well) as focal points for your Asian and Eastern European examples. But first I need to understand exactly what you mean by this "vassal state" tag you've given them. Because according to Miriam Webster's definition, that is "a state with varying degrees of independence in its internal affairs but dominated by another state in its foreign affairs and potentially wholly subject to the dominating state." Is that your understanding of the term as concerns the countries mentioned?

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