Beijing in the Mediterranean Sea

China is moving from a rural country to a nation competing for its role in the international arena. Aspirations to consolidate economic and political power are fundamental to the Belt and Road Initiative

Made up of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) combines infrastructure projects launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, with an estimated of projected spending of USD$4 -$8 trillion over the following 5 years (as reported by Freymann in 2021). This huge global BRI framework indirectly challenges the Italian maritime system.

According to Fardella and Prodi in 2017, through investment in the Port of Piraeus, the Chinese presence is made apparent in the Mediterranean region. There are consequences on the Italian maritime system. As Rhode explained in 2021, Greece joined the BRI in 2018, and today Beijing presents the Port of Piraeus as a win-win project and as a flagship of the BRI. Within the maritime network, Greece is a "bridge country," suggesting that it has a strategic transshipment role for the European area (as Yang wrote in an article for Complexity in 2011).

Belt and Road Initiative map

What does all this mean for Italy? Italy is a "core country" within the European maritime network and acts as a "ship distribution center" in the European-Mediterranean region (to quote Yang again). According to the World Bank, the container port traffic in Italy in 2019 was 10,120,001 TEU (unity measure for cargo capacity); in the same year in Greece, it was 5,992,400 TEU, the container port traffic in Greece grew by 5,057,324 TEU from 2009 to 2019, while in Italy, it grew only by 587,539 TEU. The Port of Piraeus competes not only with the complex Italian port system but also with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nonetheless, since the China Ocean Shipping Company undertook operations, the Port of Piraeus it reported a remarkable growth of 195.7% during 2007 -2017 (as reported by Rhode in 2001 in Diplomacy & Statecraft).

According to Apostolopoulou in 2020, during the visit of the former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Beijing in July 2017, Xi Jinping announced that the Port of Piraeus would become the largest container transshipment harbor in the Mediterranean: a crossroads of sea-land transportation, an international logistic distribution center, and a crucial pivot of the BRI. Using the terminology "international logistic distribution center," Xi challenged other actors in the region, including Italy. Lastly, the Port of Piraeus is not only growing in size, but it is also changing in nature. If China's plan to connect it to Budapest via high-speed train succeeds, the port will be transformed from a transshipment station into becoming China's main gateway for Central and Eastern Europe.

Italy is the only big European economy involved in the BRI through a memorandum of understanding signed in 2019, yet no specific projects were identified nor completed (as detailed by Ghiretti in 2021 in Antipode). The non-legally binding agreement was signed by a coalition government, whose lead participants included the Five-Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) and the right-wing League Party (Lega Nord). However, as reported by ANSA in 2021, given a period of changes on the international landscape and the appointment of Mario Draghi as prime minister in February 2021, Italy seemed to cool in its openness toward China. However, in relation to this new context, from a business and trade point of view, Italy needs to proceed with caution in any further expansion of the Port of Piraeus, improving its port facilities and capacities. My research proposes that political and business decisions to connect existing ports with efficient infrastructures, aiming to attract new foreign investments to stimulate competition and improve facilities, enhancing the connections of national infrastructure networks with other European economies, would promote Italy as a regional hub for transshipment and systemic value creation.

Port of Trieste, Italy

A good example is the Port of Trieste. It terminated a deal deemed to lack substantial financial benefits, between the China Communication Construction Company and the Port Authority of the Eastern Adriatic Sea - the deal aimed to sell Italian wine in China, with a promise of investing in the infrastructure of the Port of Trieste and the construction of a joint railway terminal in Slovakia. However, after political turmoil and unsuccessful business attempts, the Trieste Port Authority then embarked on a deal with the German company Hamburger Hafen und Logistik. The company was attracted by efficient railway connections with Northern Europe and future projects to implement them, exploiting the port with trains 750 meters long and directly connecting the port to the nearby highway. The planned investments amounted to EUR€400 million (according to Ghiretti in 2021).

In an increasingly globalized world, with new rising actors in each sector, the limited size of Italian ports is a potential issue for the maritime sector. Nevertheless, each port has the potential to develop and improve its specific strengths. There is scope for land transportation networks such as highways and railways to be further enhanced and linked to different ports, connecting them to the rest of the European transportation networks. This should increase efficiency of investments and reduce transportation time and costs, as well as port management expenses. In summary, the main concern with the BRI appears to be that Italy may lose the opportunity to exploit possible advantages generated by enhanced global connectivity and of facing the rising competition due to domestic weaknesses and the risk of becoming logistically ever more marginal as a consequence. Hopefully not.