Cosco in Hamburg: What the disputed port deal with China means for the German economy

Opinions are divided on the decision to give China shares in the Port of Hamburg.

Cosco in Hamburg: What the disputed port deal with China means for the German economy

Opinions are divided on the decision to give China shares in the Port of Hamburg. Anyone who opposes this primarily criticizes the Chancellor. Because he basically waved the project through single-handedly - despite massive criticism and concerns from politics and business. After all, this has led to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco taking a smaller stake in a Hamburg container terminal than originally planned.

A compromise that the federal cabinet quickly had to agree on, because if the cabinet had not made a decision this week, the sale would have been automatically approved as agreed by Cosco and the Port of Hamburg (HHLA). Cosco was originally supposed to acquire a 35 percent stake. Now it is only 24.9 percent. Acquisitions above this threshold were prohibited. This prevents the Chinese state-owned company from blocking important business and personnel decisions.

In the short term, there is nothing wrong with the cooperation: Cosco is one of the largest logistics companies in the world and could make shipping goods via the Port of Hamburg more attractive. Jobs and sales would be secured. Additional capital could also flow into Hamburg as a business location and serve to expand the local infrastructure.

However, there are a number of concerns, starting with the impact on the aforementioned digital infrastructure. At the same time, with a 35 percent stake, China would have gained leverage that it would never grant to foreign investors at home. This includes investments in critical infrastructure, telecommunications and various technology areas. If Cocso had acquired the 35 percent stake, as planned, China could have insisted that the port of Hamburg no longer allowed deliveries from certain countries. Market access could have been made more difficult for Taiwan, for example, and Hamburg could have become a pawn in Chinese politics.

Economist Rolf Langhammer from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy describes the compromise that has now been reached as "face-saving for both sides", i.e. for both Germany and China. The German Economic Institute (IW) also acknowledges the compromise with praise.

The decision was "consequent, because the modern container terminal at Tollerort is a small but relevant part of Germany's critical infrastructure." It is now more about a purely financial participation without special rights, "against which there are basically no objections. In addition, Cosco may not have access to sensitive data on port transactions," writes the IW.

But according to the Kiel-based economic researcher Langhammer, it is not at all decisive how large the participation is in the end. Cosco had agreed to make the Container Terminal Tollerort (CTT) a preferred transshipment point in Europe in exchange for the stake. "A private company could not promise this, but a state-owned company could," says Langhammer. "And therein lies a certain potential for blackmail on the part of Cosco."

He also points out that "Cosco is a key player in the maritime and digital Silk Road". Participation in various ports is referred to as the maritime Silk Road. According to research and media reports, the Chinese group has secured stakes in anchorages on almost every continent - 14 European ports are also on the list.

With the digital Silk Road, the Kiel economic expert means the digital processing of maritime trade. "And Cosoco has considerable ambitions together with other Chinese partners to promote the digitization of sea transport." In this way, the company could acquire a further competitive advantage – in the critical infrastructure that politicians and experts repeatedly mention. Therefore, the software that Cosco uses must also be open to other competitors, the expert clarifies. In addition, it must be clearly regulated on which servers the customer data is located - those customers outside of China.

However, this may no longer be relevant, because the fact that China is already involved in other ports or owns them entirely, it could also have reached customer data that is stored and used on Chinese servers, says the China expert, for example Christian Rausch. There is no doubt that China has secured further influence through the port deal with Germany, even if it is limited. China is Germany's largest trading partner. "The Chinese are also partly dependent on us because we also buy their goods. This means that this dependency naturally exists on both sides, but it is nonetheless very obvious (...) that China has once again become very important here ", says Rausch.

Since the Ukraine war, the question of breaking off all relations with dictatorships and autocracies has been raised again and again. Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock shaped the value-oriented foreign policy. But that would cost. According to the Ifo Institute, twelve percent of German exports go to autocracies. And 15 percent of all imports come from countries that are not governed democratically. "It is becoming clear that trade relations with autocracies play a greater role for Germany, both on the import and export side, than is the case for the EU-27 as a whole," writes the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in a study from the beginning August.

If Germany were to move its production from China back to Europe, it would be at the expense of prosperity, the Ifo experts have calculated. So-called renationalisation, i.e. relocating production to Germany, would cost us around ten percent of our economic power. With nearshoring, i.e. relocation to other (neighboring) countries, Germany would lose just over four percent of its economic output.

The researchers also examined a complete decoupling of the EU from China. The result: German gross domestic product would fall by 0.52 percent. Plus Chinese countermeasures, the losses would even be 0.8 percent. That doesn't sound like much, but it would have an effect four times as strong as Brexit.

According to the Ifo researchers, de-globalization would mean a massive loss of prosperity for Germany.

The German side therefore rules out the possibility that the port deal with China will fall through. So far it is unclear how Cosco will behave now. The deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the year. HHLA boss Angela Titzrath wants to speak to the Chinese "promptly". From business circles it was said recently that it is assumed that the Chinese will support the compromise solution. "There is no guarantee that the transaction will take place or when it can take place," says the Chinese state-owned company.

If Cosco were to withdraw its ships from Hamburg, it would hit the port hard. "For the competitiveness of the Port of Hamburg, the positive decision of the investment review process by the federal cabinet is of great importance," says the port's marketing organization.

Sources: Ifo Institute, German Economic Institute, Tagesschau, RND, "Welt", with material from DPA

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