On a bright afternoon at Hamburg port, gargantuan Chinese-built cranes load and unload cargo from the hold of CSCL Mars, a container ship measuring more than three football fields in length – and is owned by China’s Cosco Shipping.
It is not an unusual sight.
Hamburg’s strong rail connections to the European hinterland have made it a key link between the land and maritime arms of China’s ever-expanding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China accounts for about one-third of Hamburg’s cargo throughput and the German city is the home to Cosco’s European headquarters.
The state-backed firm now wants to buy a minority stake in one of the port’s terminals – which would mark the first time any share of ownership would be held from outside the former Hanseatic city-state.
“Wherever the Chinese companies are shareholders, they’re trying more and more to route their supply chain,” the port’s marketing CEO, Axel Mattern, told Al Jazeera, surveying the Mars’ vast steel hull from the deck of a nearby skiff.
“There needs to be a certain share of Chinese interest involved, even a small one. If not, we’re running the risk that cargo in the long-run would be rerouted,” he added.
The goods that travel from Hamburg to Shenzhen and Ningbo tell a story of close German-Chinese economic relations.
Cars, chemicals and precision machinery are shipped away. Mobile phones, computers, household appliances and clothing return.
The balance of exports and imports at Hamburg is presently even, but concerns have grown that the China-Germany relationship as a whole has grown lopsided.
The United States’ increasingly confrontational pose, criticism of China’s human rights record and interference in Hong Kong, and fears of unequal competition among its powerhouse manufacturing sector are pressuring Germany to steer a new course.
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