2000 years ago, two great civilizations dominated each ends of the ancient Silk Road.
At its most Eastern point was China’s Han dynasty, which knew very little of the other mysterious empire that controlled the Silk Road’s Western tip. Chinese people referred to this empire as “Da Qin,” and they thought of it as a sort of “counter-China” which sat at the other end of the world. Today we know that what the Chinese people called “Da Qin” was in fact nothing but the mighty Roman Empire. The story goes that in the year 97 A.D., Chinese ambassador Kan Ying embarked on a journey through the arid steppes of Central Asia to pay a visit to Rome, carrying lavish gifts for its Roman rulers.
Today, that ancient Silk Road has been revived under the name of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his intention to build a modern-day adaptation of these trade routes, giving life to a network of railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways that will once again carry goods and ideas between East and West. In this vision, China and Italy could once again become the two powers sitting at the opposite ends of the Silk Road.
In March 2019, President Xi embarked on a three-day state visit to Italy, which today is less a Mediterranean spanning empire and more of a fatigued country saddled with massive debt. In addition, unlike Chinese ambassador Kan Ying, this time President Xi Jinping did not carry lavish gifts for the Roman rulers, but a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Italy to join the Belt and Road Initiative. This was officially signed on March 23.
That Italy, a member of the G7 and a founding member of both the EU and NATO, embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative was perceived as a major blow to its traditional Western allies. At a time when the US and China were locked in a bitter trade war which saw Washington and Beijing imposing tit-for-tat tariffs and EU leaders emphasizing the need for a common strategy towards China, Rome’s formal endorsement for the BRI raised concerns that Italy could become the entry point for Chinese influence in Europe.
Various media outlets claimed that Italy “was playing with fire”, and the US depicted the country as “the European weak link in the power struggle with China”. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also warned that Beijing would take advantage of Rome, recalling the common assumption that the BRI only plays in China’s favor, and that countries that will be unable to repay generous Chinese loans will eventually fall into the so-called “debt trap”. And, because the MoU would grant a Chinese state-owned company access to various Italian ports, including Genova and Trieste, in 2019 many claimed that Italy would eventually cede its national assets to Beijing.
An article from The New York Times quickly inflated this narrative and painted a stark picture of Trieste being “invaded” by an army of deep-pocketed Chinese people: “To walk through Trieste is to witness how the city has already opened to China” – the article reads in a prophetic tone – “Chinese tourists shop for the city’s trademark Illy coffee and take pictures with their Huawei phones of the elegant Caffé Degli Specchi”. As the article continues, “most significant, construction workers in scuba gear have been laying foundations near the site where a new pier is expected to become China’s home in the industrial port.” In the imaginary of the Times, the idea that China could soon control major Italian national assets loomed large. Yet, two years since the controversial signing of the MoU, the obvious question is: have these prophecies come about? The answer is no.
First, it should be noted that most of the agreements signed by Italy and China were largely expressions of intention, which never really came to reality.
After March 2019 Beijing had to learn a hard lesson: dealing with Italy’s schizophrenic, unpredictable, and unreliable political system is no easy task. When the MoU for the BRI was first signed, Italy was governed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League, a dysfunctional and populist coalition that favored a new partnership with Beijing. This coalition also rejected Italy’s traditional Western alliances and was largely anti-EU and anti-establishment. However, this government was quickly replaced by a new coalition that re-positioned Italy back into its traditional alliance system. This approach was then reinforced by yet another change of government in 2021, when Prime Minister Mario Draghi emphasized that his new administration was “strongly pro-European and Atlanticist.” This political roller coaster essentially proved that Rome’s position towards the BRI can virtually change at any time.
In addition, the continuing US-China trade war and the growing tension around Italy’s endorsement for the BRI in 2019 might have eventually influenced Italy’s decision-makers, prompting them to choose different partners. In Trieste, where, according to the New York Times, to walk through the city is “to witness how the city has already opened to China,” the port infrastructure project was eventually contracted not by China Communication Construction Company (CCCC), but by Germany’s Hafen and Logistik.
It is also important to highlight that many concerns on Italy falling into a “debt trap” had little supporting evidence. Both Italian and European legal frameworks limit the ability of foreign companies to acquire assets in country’s vital sectors. In particular, the Italian government can also appeal to the so-called “Golden Power” regulation, a special rule introduced in 2012 and reviewed in 2020 by which the Italian government can decide to stop foreign direct investment when it goes against the national interest. This means that there was virtually no possibility to cede control of Italian ports to a Chinese organisation.
Finally, what is often ignored is that Chinese investment would have been limited to very specific projects: China’s collaboration would not be focused directly on the entire ports of Genova and Trieste – rather, in Genova, CCCC would have invested in the construction of a new breakwater dam, while in Trieste the company would have been involved in the construction of railway stations and rail connections. These considerations seem to suggest that fears over Chinese investments in Italian infrastructure have often been exaggerated by media outlets and political figures. Also, they stemmed from a general mistrust towards China’s BRI, rather than from any thorough analysis. Stating that “to walk through Trieste is to witness how the city has already opened to China” is a form of sensationalism that actively distorts reality.