Germany May Allow Chinese Port Investment Despite Internal Opposition

A Cosco container ship at the Tollerot terminal in Hamburg (file image)

Published Oct 20, 2022 8:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears to be backing China Cosco's bid to buy a 35 percent stake in the Tollerort container terminal at Hamburg - despite opposition from six federal ministries in his own government, according to a new report from two German public broadcasters.

The Tollerort deal has been in motion since last year, but skepticism has been growing. Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck announced last month that the German government plans to more closely review Chinese investments in critical infrastructure and German dependency on Chinese materials. He voiced opposition to the sale of a stake in Tollerort to Cosco and similar investment deals on security grounds. "I'm leaning towards the fact that we don't allow that," the minister told Reuters in September. 

This week, German public broadcasters NDR and WDR reported that all six federal ministries with a hand in reviewing the Tollerort deal are against it. So are leaders in the other political parties in Scholz's governing coalition, the FDP and the Green Party. The Christian Democrats (CDU), the center-right opposition party, are also opposed, and the EU Commission is reported to have concerns as well. 

"This sell-off of German infrastructure would be a mistake. Especially since Europeans cannot invest in ports in China," said Jens Spahn, a member of the CDU's executive committee.

The security concerns revolve around the decisionmaking power that Cosco would have over port operations. It is already the terminal's biggest customer, and as a part owner, it would have one seat on a three-member board - and might be able to leverage its influence as the top customer to sway decisionmaking.

However, Scholz - who was once mayor of Hamburg and supported the city's trade ties with China - may have a more positive view. His office is said to support the Tollerort deal; in order to allow the sale to move forward, all it would have to do is allow the clock to run out. The federal cabinet has until the end of October to take action, and if it does not, the sale will go forward. The deadline happens to fall just before Scholz is scheduled to make a visit to China, according to WDR. 

For its part, the Port of Hamburg believes that the deal with Cosco is essential to development. "A rejection of the Chinese would be a disaster not only for the port but for Germany," Hafen Hamburg marketing head Axel Mattern told Reuters last month.

China COSCO, a subsidiary of China's State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), already has stakes in Rotterdam, Antwerp, Piraeus and Duisburg. Without the proposed Chinese investment in Hamburg, the port will be less able to compete, warned HHLA spokesman Hans-Jörg Heims. "Our competitors Rotterdam and Antwerp will be very pleased if this deal falls through," he told Politico.