Possible Belt and Road role for Italian seaports
by Emanuele Scimia

The memo of understanding between Italy and China should foster the participation of Italian seaports in the New Silk Roads project. Trieste and Venice could become Belt and Road hubs – unless the US and the EU throw a spanner in the works. 

Rome (AsiaNews) - Italy’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which should be sealed during Chinese President Xi Jinping visit to Rome from March 21-23, has put the spotlight on the possible role of Italian seaports in the massive trade and infrastructure project that aims to link China to Europe.

More than two-thirds of trade by value between the European Union and the Asian giant goes by sea via the Suez Canal, and the North Adriatic maritime transport route is the shortest way to reach inland parts of the Old Continent from East Asia. Italian, Croatian and Slovenian port facilities are more competitive in geographic terms than Piraeus port in Greece, which China Ocean Shipping Company purchased in 2016 in the attempt to turn it into the main Mediterranean gateway for Chinese goods.

Pino Musolino, president of the Port Authority of Venice, told AsiaNews that “Venice port has long worked to seize the opportunities that China’s New Silk Roads strategy offers, with the aim of having positive spillovers on local business and job levels.”

On February 11, Venice signed a memo of understanding with Piraeus to improve overall capacities of the two seaports as important hubs in the Belt and Road scheme. The two port facilities had already set up a weekly ferry service last October. Venice port also has a new rail link to Duisburg, in western Germany, which is the European hub for the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt.

“In regard with the dualism between Venice and Trieste, the two ports actually service different markets,” Musolino emphasized. “Our facility is the main gateway to industrial clusters in northern Italy, importing raw materials and exporting high-added-value products. For its part, Trieste is focused on Central and Eastern Europe.”

Musolino believes North Adriatic ports should combine their efforts to better manage increased Mediterranean trade resulting from the Belt and Road plan.

Zeno D’Agostino, who heads the Port Network Authority of the Eastern Adriatic Sea, the public company that runs Trieste port, essentially agrees with the concept of more Adriatic hubs for the BRI. “There are many Chinese companies that are willing to operate and invest in the region’s port system,” he explained. “Cooperation to maximize the benefits of the New Silk Roads is possible among Italian, Slovenian and Croatian seaports, but that will mostly depend on the choices of private terminal operators.”

Strong connectivity with the rest of Europe, and a robust supply chain, could help Trieste port become the western end of the Maritime Silk Road. The Croatian port of Rijeka is another potential entry point for Chinese shipped goods. Croatia wants to attract more investment from China, particularly for the construction of a modern rail connection between Rijeka and Budapest.

However, it is likely that Chinese companies will prioritize investments in ports such as Trieste, which is already well-connected. D’Agostino noted that without the support of solid rail infrastructure and links, a seaport cannot become an international trade hub – and a key Belt and Road node.

It remains to be seen whether Italy will maintain support for the BRI strategy in the face of growing opposition from the United States and a number of EU countries, which have warned that China’s activities and presence in Italian ports might imperil their security interests.