Italy's Belt and Road blues highlight hopes for rival India-Europe corridor
Ship-to-shore cranes tower high above choppy waters and colorful containers on the Ligurian coast of northern Italy. Sailors coming in to dock are greeted with a smorgasbord of transportation industry names and logos, from Denmark's Maersk to Taiwan's Evergreen. Harder to spot is COSCO, the jewel of China's maritime business, which owns a 40% stake in the cutting-edge Vado Port System at Vado Ligure.
The facility is one of at least two dozen European hubs in which Chinese companies own stakes. Many of these investments dovetailed with Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its drive to build infrastructure stretching from Asia to Europe and Africa, deepening its own influence along the way.
Locals say COSCO keeps a low profile around Vado Ligure, although this might just reflect its minority stake. Either way, there is growing discomfort in Italy and much of Europe regarding the BRI -- over security fears as well as what some describe as economic "broken promises." Italy, the only Group of Seven country to formally join the BRI, has signaled it wants to withdraw.
Now Europe is looking at alternatives. A week after China hosted its 10th anniversary Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in mid-October, the European Union held its own Global Gateway Forum to "boost sustainable investments in infrastructure." As part of that goal, the EU is backing an answer to the BRI -- the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), proposed at September's Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.
China's extensive involvement in ports poses "insufficiently understood risks" to Europe, warned a research report published by the European Parliament in September. The study -- commissioned by a parliamentary committee but not necessarily representing an official stance -- suggests the port investments are part of a deliberate strategy by Beijing to acquire assets it could leverage during conflict scenarios, including one over Taiwan.
The report states that Chinese companies were involved in at least 24 acquisition deals for European ports over the past two decades or so, pouring in 9.1 billion euros ($9.7 billion).
The list includes Greece's Piraeus, where COSCO holds full ownership of container terminals as well as a majority stake in the port authority. The port is often mentioned as a potential European entrypoint for IMEC, although the corridor's precise route remains uncertain.
Marc Julienne, head of China research at the French Institute of International Relations, explained that the Piraeus deal was made in the "gloomy context" of European debt problems.
Since then, Europe-China relations have "deteriorated sharply," Julienne added, with "greater mistrust" amid near-constant sparring between Washington and Beijing. The G7 earlier this year resolved to "de-risk from China", vowing to "reduce excessive dependencies in our critical supply chains."
China routinely rejects the notion that its BRI projects could pose risks. After Germany said in April that it would review COSCO's Hamburg deal, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin should "not politicize normal business cooperation or make it an issue about ideologies and security." Germany ultimately authorized the purchase.
Julienne at the French Institute said that individually, these investments seem harmless. But "when it becomes a series of ports, one can wonder about the wider strategy," he said, adding that a state does not casually "put billions on the table for an entire port."
"Chinese investments are not necessarily a danger," Julienne said, but to regard COSCO as a "company like any other" would be "a strong misunderstanding of the Chinese political and economic system."
Security worries are not the only reason the BRI is losing its luster in Europe.
Economically, experts see the BRI as a damp squib for countries like Italy, which once viewed it as a chance for southern European states that felt forgotten by Brussels. China is the main origin of Italian maritime trade traffic, but at ports like Vado Ligure and nearby Genoa, containers that come in heavily packed head back to Asia much lighter.
"China's promises of massive investments, loans [on favorable conditions] and increased bilateral trade have been disappointing," said Julienne. This "fatigue over broken promises," as he put it, also explains why some European countries have been distancing themselves from China.
>> Read the full article on the website Nikkei Asia