Although lagging other countries, Italy is playing a leading role in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the first G7 nation to have signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation within the BRI framework.
For Italy, the Chinese market remains a strategic target. Current Italian exports to China amount to about 13 billion euros ($14.6 billion). Italy also aims to seize the opportunities that will emerge in other countries involved in the BRI, implementing know-how in Africa and the Balkans by means of trilateral cooperation.
According to estimates, the BRI could increase global trade of the EU by up to 6 percent, and of Italy by up to 7 percent. This is particularly the case if trans-Eurasian rail corridors are further modernized (container transportation). Fully fledged participation in the BRI (if salient connectivity projects are completed) may contribute to overcoming the region's traditionally peripheral economic position in Europe.
China is looking with interest at Genoa, Savona and Trieste. Trieste in particular seems to have real potential thanks to its free customs zone and connections to Central Europe, the distance to which will decrease in 2025 when the Brenner tunnel becomes operational. It will link the main urban centers and ports of Scandinavia and Northern Germany to the industrial centers of southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy.
Trieste was also recognized in July 2017 as a free international port which is unique in Europe. Together with the agreement for the development of intermodal logistics areas signed with the river port of Duisburg, which the Chinese maps refer to as the terminal port of the new Terrestrial Silk Road, Trieste aims to play a leading role in the Maritime Silk Road.
Italy is therefore a strategic country for the Chinese project in the Mediterranean region as is confirmed by the maps that show Venice as the European terminal port of the Maritime Silk Road and also by the fact that, until now, the ports of Trieste, Genoa and Venice could in fact allow Chinese goods to reach the heart of Europe more quickly than the Piraeus port in Greece, and would also offer greater possibilities in terms of logistics, draft, speed of customs clearance and excellent road and rail connections.
However, the modernization of Italian ports not only will have an impact on the "Mediterranean equilibrium" but also implies a possible competition with ports of Northern Europe, which would worry about the possibility of the Mediterranean becoming the hub of China's traffic into the EU. The Mediterranean region and Italy in particular are therefore in a position to play a decisive role in the BRI.
Like all major projects, the BRI will also have to deal with a series of unconventional threats ranging from terrorism to organized crime, and also national crises in Afghanistan and the Middle East which, through the Balkans, may cause tensions and crises even inside Europe.
In addition to all these challenges, there are other critical voices against the project. The concerns of several European countries regarding hostile takeovers from outside Europe, with particular reference to China and the sovereign funds of Arab countries, the trade war between China and the US, as well as the row over Huawei and ZTE, could exacerbate uncertainties and have repercussions on the BRI's performance.
It remains to be seen whether the next 21st bilateral summit between the EU and China, which will take place on April 9 in Brussels, will boost EU-China relations and will define a European approach toward the BRI.
The author is director of Observatory for Stability and Security in the Wider Mediterranean at Lumsa University, Rome.