The partial sale of a terminal at the Port of Hamburg is making waves internationally. There is even a warning from Turkey: In the end, China will use the ports it has bought for its navy. It doesn’t help that only a smaller part is now to be sold. The opportunities to influence remain.

The Chinese company Cosco is allowed to enter the port of Hamburg. The federal cabinet agreed that the group would receive less than the originally invested 35 percent, but would be allowed to acquire 24.9 percent of the shares in the container terminal Tollerort of the Hamburg port logistics group HHLA.

The compromise is the result of a struggle between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the ministries involved. As a former mayor of Hamburg, Scholz knows how important trade with China is for the Port of Hamburg. A confidant of the chancellor, as a member of the supervisory board of the Port of Hamburg, already waved the deal through last year.

In the course of the final approval process, however, doubts arose. Against the background of the Ukraine war, Germany is trying to emancipate itself from dictatorial countries as a trading partner. China is one of them, which is why the partial sale of a container terminal appears in a new light.

Several ministries recently warned against the sale. Recently, a statement from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection by Robert Habeck (Greens) became known, which stated that the acquisition planned by Cosco would probably lead to a “significant deepening” of Chinese influence on port operations and merchant shipping in Germany and the EU. There is a risk of “a restriction of Europe’s strategic autonomy”. The conclusion: “The acquisition should therefore be prohibited.”

If a buyer from a country that does not belong to the EU wants to buy at least a quarter of the shares in a German company, the Ministry of Economics routinely checks the process. In the area of ​​critical infrastructure, which includes the Port of Hamburg as the largest overseas port in Germany, the threshold is ten percent of the shares. And the Economics Ministry has recently been strict: China is striving to become a maritime world power and is therefore trying to establish a permanent presence at strategically important points, they say. And further: The past has shown that Cosco often only participates as a minority shareholder, but then gains more control.

It is not easy for an investor in an unlisted company in which he holds a minority stake to sway strategy in his favour. While this works in listed companies by attending the general meeting, where large majorities can be organized with relatively small blocks of shares and voting rights, minority shareholders in GmbHs, such as the port terminal in question, have less influence.

However, they can also make life difficult for companies, as the trade journal “leaderslaw” describes: The first starting point is the right to request information from management about all company affairs at any time and to request inspection of the company’s books and documents. This is very often associated with considerable effort for the management. In addition: If the shareholder holds at least ten percent of the company, he can repeatedly ask the management to convene new shareholders’ meetings or to add to the agenda and also enforce this.

Observers from various countries are therefore warning of the deal. The political director of the Turkish think tank Seta, Deniz Istikbal, recently wrote a study on China’s port policy. He soberly describes how the Beijing government operates ports in various regions of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. “The purchases via Cosco, a gigantic public company, facilitate foreign trade on the one hand, and on the other hand it is hoped that this will improve bilateral relations.”

While the acquired ports improved foreign trade for China, they also weakened the competitiveness of other nations vis-à-vis China. Istikbal warns: “The ports are likely to develop into a national security problem for European countries.”

Because they hold great potential for the Chinese Navy. “As a nation that takes over the operating and ownership rights of these ports, Beijing is also making its navy a global power.” The study author points to the port of Piraeus in Greece, which is now majority owned by COSCO, after several years previously also only a stake in a container port had been acquired.

Warnings also come from the Berlin Mercator Institute for China Studies. Due to its critical attitude towards China, the respected foundation has now been banned from working in the Middle Kingdom and is subject to sanctions from the Chinese side. She writes: China is strengthening its economic and political influence with acquisitions and investments. “However, there is also the risk of creating actual and imagined economic dependencies with China.”

Beijing takes advantage of the fact that subnational actors do not comment on issues such as Taiwan or Tibet out of hope for further Chinese investment or fear of the loss of existing economic ties. In this way, economic relationships can become a shaping factor in political ones.”

By “subnational actors” the foundation means cities, municipalities but also companies like the Hamburg port operator, but also the largest inland port in Europe in Duisburg. There, the operators proudly announced three years ago that they wanted to make a huge terminal for trains, barges and trucks in the Rhine port “the most important European center for trade with China”. Four companies had joined forces for this purpose in order to implement the project by this year.

Cosco, who are now playing in Hamburg, was one of them. Duisburg is one of the end points of the so-called “New Silk Road”. The newly reappointed Chinese President Xi Jinping was also there. Freight trains have been running regularly between Chinese industrial regions and Duisburg since 2011.

From there, the containers are transported to the seaports and to neighboring European countries. A former Duisport manager is the city’s China representative, and the administration has set up a “Department for China Affairs” from scratch. However, there was a crack in the cooperation with the Chinese two months ago. In any case, since August, Cosco has no longer appeared in the company register as a shareholder at the “Duisburg Gateway Terminal”. The country quietly took over the shares, a purchase price was not mentioned. After all, the North Rhine-Westphalian Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) can say relaxed: “In Duisburg, nobody from China is involved in the port.”