Germany rethinks China’s Hamburg port deal as further doubts raised

Germany rethinks China’s Hamburg port deal as further doubts raised

POLITICO — 2023-04-19

Maritime and Ports

Further doubts loom over the fate of a controversial plan to sell parts of a Hamburg port terminal to China, amid pressure for Berlin to rethink its ties to Beijing.

A new internal report by the German economy ministry, obtained by POLITICO, accuses the Hamburg port operating company of failing to properly register the terminal in question as “critical infrastructure,” which would have changed the scope of the deal. A joint investigation by German public broadcasters WDR and NDR, along with German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported it first.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, pushed the deal through last October for Chinese state company Cosco to buy a minority stake in the Tollerort terminal in the Hamburg port, ahead of a state visit to China. But this came amid objections within his three-party coalition government, with members of the Green party and liberal FDP expressing concerns about undue Chinese influence.

As POLITICO reported last week, the deal has now been thrown into uncertainty after Germany's BSI security agency recently declared the facility as “critical infrastructure.”

The new report by the economy ministry, run by Green member Robert Habeck, further casts doubt on the deal by accusing the shipping company that runs the terminal, Hamburger Hafen und Logistik (HHLA), of applying for the classification as critical infrastructure one year too late — and only under pressure from the BSI. It also argues that the October deal was reached under the assumption that the company did not operate critical infrastructure when in fact it had clearly surpassed a key threshold for this classification — 3,270,000 tons of cargo handled per year.

Under the terms of the deal, Cosco was allowed to buy a 24.9% stake. But a classification as “critical infrastructure” means this stake should have been no higher than 10%, according to the ministry report, presented to German economy lawmakers 2023 April 19.

The economy ministry was officially notified of the results of the audit conducted by the BSI at the beginning of 2023 April. According to the report, however, the port operator should have gotten the critical infrastructure classification back in 2023 April because the relevant threshold had already been reached in 2021.

The company was therefore obliged to register with the BSI by April 02, 2022. However, this was not done until January 2023, following a request from the BSI,” the report states.

Anyone who intentionally or negligently fails to register is acting in violation of regulations, the ministry writes.

HHLA denied the accusations to POLITICO and said it considers the ministry's view to be unfounded, arguing it had provided comprehensive and transparent information at all times.

We now have the case that those who should have reported obviously reported incorrectly — the BSI has therefore clearly said that this administrative act must be reviewed again, and we will now do that as the federal government,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, also a member of the Greens, said 2023 April 19.

Habeck's economy ministry is now assessing the impact of the new findings on the 2022 October decision to allow the deal to go through.

Germany's main opposition party, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), again called for scrapping the deal.

Now it turns out that the Federal Minister of Economy obviously did not fully know the current legal situation. This is incredible amateurism and a serious failure,” Norbert Röttgen, the CDU's foreign policy expert, told POLITICO. “The involvement of the Chinese state-owned company must now be prohibited.