(Recasts, updates throughout with Chinese comment)
BEIJING, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has urged Greece’s new leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to ensure protection of the rights of China’s companies and backing for a key port project, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
China sees Greece’s strategic location as a entry point to both Europe and Africa for the distribution of its products, and had been developing close ties with the previous conservative-led government.
In a telephone call between the two leaders the previous day, Li said he saw “enormous prospects” for relations, China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Mr Prime Minister, you have repeated that you welcome China to increase investment in Greece and will carry out cooperative agreements already reached by both sides,” the ministry paraphrased Li as saying.
“(I) hope your country’s government can provide better legal safeguards for Chinese companies operating in Greece,” he added.
Greece’s government said on Wednesday it was sticking to plans to halt the sale of its two biggest ports, Piraeus and Thessaloniki.
China’s Cosco manages two of the Piraeus port’s cargo piers. Under a privatisation scheme last year, it had been shortlisted, along with four other suitors, as a potential buyer of a stake of 67 percent in the port.
Li called Cosco’s Piraeus operation a “successful model of cooperation” that brought jobs and improved working conditions.
China “hopes the two sides can abide by their promises”, he added.
A Greek government official said Li told Tsipras businesses were interested in new investments in Greece.
“The Chinese premier assured Alexis Tsipras that there is interest from Chinese companies for new investments in Greece,” the official said. “The two leaders discussed deepening economic, commercial and cultural cooperation.”
The Greek official also said the two leaders discussed sending a Greek government delegation to China to prepare for a visit by Tsipras, without giving details.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was unable to confirm any visit.
China has so far shown little interest in getting involved in financial help for Greece, with the foreign ministry on Wednesday saying it had no knowledge of any aid offered by Beijing, after a Greek official mentioned such an offer. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in BEIJING, and Costas Pitas in ATHENS; Editing by Deepa Babington and Clarence Fernandez)