Germany agrees to controversial sale of Hamburg port terminal


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

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

The purchase could open up the possibility of Beijing politically instrumentalizing part of Germany’s —- and Europe’s — critical infrastructure.

On Wednesday, Germany’s government agreed to allow COSCO Shipping to acquire a stake of less than 25%, instead of the previously planned 35%.

Germany’s Economic Affairs Ministry said the decision was made to prevent a “strategic investment” by COSCO in the terminal and “reduces the acquisition to a purely financial investment”.

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

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

Six German government ministries initially rejected it on the grounds that COSCO, already the port’s biggest customer, could get too much leverage.

“The reason for the partial prohibition is the existence of a threat to public order and safety,” the Economic Affairs Ministry said.

The one-quarter threshold cannot be exceeded in the future without a new 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.

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

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

Scholz, who is set to travel to China early next month with a delegation of German business representatives, was in favor 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 dependent on China.

“We have to learn lessons, and learning the lesson means we have to reduce unilateral dependencies wherever possible, and that applies to China in particular,” Steinmeier told public broadcaster ARD during a Tuesday visit to Ukraine.

German intelligence agencies said earlier this month that China’s finances might become a risk for Germany, particularly because of the strong economic and scientific ties between the two countries.

At a hearing with lawmakers, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency Thomas Haldenwang made a comparison with the current 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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