The Dragon is looking West

In the memorandum between Italy and China, two of the twenty nine agreements concern the ports of Trieste and Genoa, which Beijing sees as its gates to Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he arrives at Villa Madama in Rome, Italy March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

In the memorandum between Italy and China, two of the twenty nine agreements concern the ports of Trieste and Genoa, which Beijing sees as its gates to Europe

“Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”. Napoleon Bonaparte was all too right. And if the truth be told, China hasn’t just stirred, it has also set its sights on Europe and some of its most important economies, and is making a concerted effort to involve them in what is undoubtedly the most sweeping infrastructural project ever conceived: the Belt and Road Initiative, or new Silk Road.

The eye of the Dragon has therefore turned its gaze westward, towards Europe and its southern shores, Italy included. In Beijing’s designs, Italy is meant to become some sort of strategic platform for Chinese penetration into Europe, with possible advantages for both countries.

Chinese interest in Europe is testified by the figures: in just eight years, direct Chinese investments in Europe have grown from one billion euros in 2008 to 35 billion in 2016. As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, this vast infrastructural and port development that will spread from Asia to Africa and Europe, the Old Continent is expected to receive a third of the total investments, which easily exceed the trillion dollars mark.

In China’s strategy for Europe, a chapter of the greatest importance is the one that concerns ports and interconnected infrastructure, such as railways. Thanks to these links, Chinese goods on arrival at Mediterranean ports can be quickly shunted onto European markets, with a saving of at least three days’ travel. In the historic memorandum between Italy and China signed at the end of March, with Chinese president Xi Jinping in attendance, two of the 29 agreements directly impact on the ports of Trieste and Genoa, which are the perfect gateways to Europe as far as Beijing is concerned.

The two Italian ports have stipulated an agreement with the China Communication Construction Company, a vast Chinese construction firm that boasts an annual turnover of 90 billion euros, but for the time being the agreement only seems to relate to generic cooperation in the fields of logistics and infrastructural connectivity. For Genoa there’s talk of a number of upgrades designed to increase the seaport’s handling capacity, an ambitious project worth one billion euros for the new dam and a few expansions of existing infrastructure, such as the Fincantieri shipyard in Sestri Ponente, as well as the creation of a joint venture between CCCC and the Port Authority. These operations, once implemented, would lead to a doubling of the container volume currently handled by the port, which could then approach the two millions TEU mark. The Genoa port chairman, Paolo Emilio Signorini, has in any case specified that the agreement with CCCC does not include the construction of infrastructure, but only consultancy on the major works already included in the port’s investment programme.

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