1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

DW documentary examines China's grip on Europe

Linda Vierecke | Elisabetta Galla
December 8, 2020

A new film, "China's Gateway to Europe - The New Silk Road," explores how an Italian harbor became entangled in a contemporary geopolitical debate.

Dokumentation ZDF Die neue Seidenstraße
Image: ZDF

The Italian port city of Trieste, located between the Adriatic sea and Slovenia has long been significant. Already under the Habsburg Monarchy, which controlled it between 1382 and 1918, it was a bustling maritime hub serving all of Central Europe. 

Later, during the Cold War in the 20th century, the port lost its strategic importance as the city landed at the edge of Western Europe, right by former Yugoslavia.

But these days, the Italian port city is experiencing a new golden era.

"To understand the growing importance of the port, you only have to look at the map," explains the President of the Port Authority, Zeno D'Agostino. "Eastern Europe's economy is growing strongly, and all of these countries can be reached very quickly from the port of Trieste," he points out.

Since D'Agostino took office in 2015, the Port of Trieste has been developing rapidly. He is dedicated to transforming the port and bringing it back to its former splendor. "The train connection with the North, partly the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, is one of Trieste's big advantages," he says.

A portrait of Zeno D'Agostino at the port
President of the Trieste Port Authority Zeno D'Agostino says Trieste's port could be a valuable trade hub for Eastern EuropeImage: DW

Few other cities in Italy have been so strongly influenced by geopolitics as Trieste. Even today, its strategic position makes it an ideal location for the new maritime Silk Road. In March 2019, Italy signed an agreement with China, becoming the first G7 country to become part of the New Silk Road, a large-scale infrastructure project linking trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. The controversies around this project are the subject of a new DW documentary called China's Gateway to Europe - The New Silk Road.

Harsh criticism from Brussels

Yet the decision to partner with China was not without criticism, especially from Brussels and other EU member states. "What was advertised to the Italian public as a purely commercial declaration of intent is actually a political recognition of the Silk Road project by a member state of the G7 — in other words, it's a very serious matter," explains Italian sinologist Giada Messetti.

In her latest book, In the Mind of the Dragon (Nella testa del Dragone, 2020), she explains China's political and cultural strategy: "The Chinese have planned from the outset to become what they are today. They have pursued an economic agenda. And since their economic importance in the world is so strong, it is, in fact, self-evident that they want to influence the world."

A portrait of Giada Messetti
Italian sinologist Giada Messetti is familiar with China's political and cultural goals abroadImage: DW

A pawn in international politics?

The international deep water port is the most important port for oil tankers in the Mediterranean and its position is considered strategic and advantageous. The agreement with China stipulates that the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) will be involved with the Port of Trieste.

Unlike other ports in Europe, such as the Greek port of Piraeus, which has been majority-owned by Chinasince 2016, the Trieste port cannot simply been sold. This is something that the city's Port Authority repeats time and time again.

However, the controversial agreement between China and Italy has not yet produced any concrete projects. Months after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Rome, a standstill remains.

But behind the scenes, things look different: "Actually, we have been negotiating with the Chinese for some time now," says Francesco Parisi.

As Chairman of the Board of Piattaforma Logistica Trieste (PLT), he is in charge of the construction of a new multi-functional terminal in the Trieste port area and is looking for partners to develop the project. "We do not necessarily prefer China as a trading partner, we simply perceive that the country has grown and that it is now the number one trading partner."

A view over the city of Trieste and its port
The port of Trieste has long had an important strategic locationImage: Imago/imagebroker

A rich economic history

Parisi is in charge of transport business all over the world. His company, founded in 1807, is part of the city's history. As an eighth-generation entrepreneur, he cannot ignore the confrontation between the United States and China.

He himself experienced the Cold War period in Trieste. "The thought of a Cold War is what drives me personally — as a businessman but also as a citizen of the European Union. But international trade can be a bridge to help maintain peace."

But this is where opinions differ: Is it permissible to do business with a country that is known for violating human rights? And how does one behave in the midst of a trade dispute between China and the USA? The political pressure is high, and the city of Trieste has suddenly found itself involved in the conflict.

A view of cranes in front of a grey building at the harbor
The port will be part of China's New Silk Road projectImage: picture-alliance/ROPI/Fotogramma/Maule

A new European partner on board

But at the end of September 2020 it was announced that a new European partner will be involved in the port's development. "Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) is acquiring a 50.01% majority stake in the multi-function terminal in the Port of Trieste," the press release reads. Although it may be more of a commercial decision, the geopolitical position of Trieste also plays a role. 

China expert Giada Messetti would like to see a clearer Europe-wide stance on China: "Europe risks becoming the battlefield of China and America. But the EU could be the third player in the global arena. I hope it chooses to be just that," she says.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.

Skip next section Explore more