Germany finds compromise over Chinese Hamburg terminal deal

BERLIN (AP) — Germany’s government agreed on a compromise Wednesday that will allow a Chinese shipping group to take a reduced stake in the operator of a container terminal at the Hamburg port following concerns the deal might pose a national security risk.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Cabinet agreed to allow COSCO Shipping to only acquire a stake below 25% — instead of the previously planned 35% — in the Tollerort terminal of Hamburg port logistics company HHLA, the economy ministry said in a statement.

The 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.”

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

The 25% threshold — above which an investor in a company can block decisions in Germany — 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.

The question of whether Chinese participation in the port should be permitted had produced a political dispute as Germany wrestles with the consequences of its dependence, until recently, on Russian natural gas.

Lawmakers from the Green party and the Free Democrats, which formed a governing coalition last year with Scholz’ Social Democrats, openly criticized the original proposal last week. Six German government ministries initially rejected it on the grounds that COSCO, already a major customer, could get too much leverage.

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

“Cooperation should be mutually beneficial,” Wang said in Beijing. “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.

On Wednesday, Scholz’ spokeswoman told reporters that “the chancellor believes that participation as it has now been approved is not strategic dependence.”

Scholz “has made it very clear that it is not about a sale of parts of the port of Hamburg, but only about a participation in a single terminal,” Christiane Hoffmann added.

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 financial might could 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 Greece’s main port of Piraeus.

Hamburg port logistics company HHLA said it wants to talk “in a timely manner” with COSCO about adjusting the agreements on the Chinese company’s entry into the HHLA terminal, German news agency dpa reported.

“We welcome the fact that a solution has been found in factual, constructive talks with the German government,” the chairwoman of the executive board, Angela Titzrath, said, adding that they had time until the end of the year to discuss, negotiate and bring the deal to a conclusion with COSCO.

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