BERLIN/ROME/BEIJING (Own repot) – The West’s power struggle against China is provoking new tensions between Germany and Italy. According to reports published last week, the Italian government plans to conclude a cooperation agreement with Beijing within the framework of the “New Silk Road” (Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) to benefit from Chinese investments in Italy’s infrastructure, e.g. the Trieste port and Italy’s power grid. China has already invested in several of the EU’s periphery countries, heavily affected by Berlin’s austerity dictate – such as Greece and Portugal – which gladly welcome these investments as relief. The German government is now beginning to make moves against this. Berlin seeks to prevent the People’s Republic of China from increasing its influence within the EU and fears inner-European resistance if it takes aggressive action against its East Asian rival. Fierce debates are expected at the EU summit at the end of next week and at the EU-China summit on April 9.
The Rise of the Port of Piraeus
Greece was the first EU country to cooperate on a larger scale with China in its effort to expand transit routes between East Asia and Europe. In November 2008 – five years before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was officially launched in the second half of 2013 – Athens granted the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) the concession to operate two container terminals in the port of Piraeus, which already has become one of the European terminals of the “Maritime Silk Road. ” At the time, Greece would have preferred investors from the EU. The EU’s centers of prosperity, however, particularly Germany, showed no interest in investing in that country confronting an escalation of the crisis. COSCO did invest, and the port of Piraeus became an economic success. Container handling climbed from 880.000 TEU  in 2010 to 3.74 million TEU in 2016. Between 2012 and 2016, Piraeus was the sixth fastest growing container handling port in the world. It had climbed to second place among the Mediterranean’s highest-ranking container ports by the end of 2018. Trade circles expect that it will overtake the port of Valencia to become the Mediterranean’s highest-ranking container handler next year.’
In a next step, 16 east and southeast European countries, including all of the EU countries of that region, have begun cooperating with China. Greece had begun its cooperation earlier. Since the first meeting of heads of state and governments in Warsaw, in April 2012, they have been meeting annually in a 16 + 1 summit, with one of the issues being the improvement of infrastructure. This opens the possibility for the railway expansion from Belgrade to Budapest with Chinese credits. The expansion of the rail link from Greece through Macedonia on to Belgrade is already in discussion. In the long term, this will make possible the transport of goods from Piraeus – a terminal of the “maritime Silk Road” – with a modern railroad directly to the heart of Europe. To be able to benefit from Chinese investments, the EU’s “16 + 1” format countries cooperating with Beijing, have – like Greece – even officially joined the BRI.
The Neglected Periphery
Italy, a country, which also has been made to suffer under the German austerity dictates and which sees its economic interests systematically ignored by the hegemonic power in Berlin, is now in a similar situation. As was made known last week, Rome and Beijing are working on a Memorandum of Understanding, which will include Chinese investments to expand the port of Trieste, making it a second “Maritime Silk Road” terminal at the Mediterranean – alongside Piraeus. The State Grid Corporation of China will cooperate with the electricity company Terna. Other infrastructure projects are in discussion. The Memorandum of Understanding is due to be signed during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Rome on March 22. The EU Commission is now raising objections – allegedly under pressure from Berlin and Paris – because every member country is supposed to “respect EU unity.” Although there is no unified EU position on the question, it is nevertheless clear that Berlin is opposed to closer Italian-Chinese cooperation.
Full article: Struggle over the Silk Road (German Foreign Policy)