30.11.2020 – 10.30 – The programme of the geopolitics magazine Limes, as part of the “Giornate del Mare” Festival, has given ample space to the port of Trieste. Moreover, Trieste itself should have been the venue of the cycle of conferences focusing on the role of Italy in the Mediterranean (and not only).
In particular, the city was the protagonist of a speech on the by now long-standing issue of China and the Silk Road within a conference significantly entitled “The Mediterranean in the Ocean World”, coordinated by Giorgio Cuscito, author of the Imperial Bulletin, who had already dealt with the topic in general during last Friday’s conference.
In this context, Cuscito recalled how the Festival, starting from the title “Italy is the sea”, aims at restoring the nation’s maritime conscience. The awareness that the Mediterranean “is not a body of water in its own right, but a link between the two oceans, the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific”, whether one likes it or not “is how the great powers perceive it”.
The United States, on the other hand, has shown that it does not want to give up the Mediterranean, in turn populated by a multiplicity of international actors, starting from the penetration of the People’s Republic of China.
In this context, Cuscito observed that from the perspective of the Dragon country, China finds itself at the centre of the two oceans; and in this regard, by rotating the map ninety degrees, as the Chinese often do, the Mediterranean is configured as the perfect way of passage, more than an entity in its own right.
The maritime economy, this unknown
Luca Sisto, Director General of Confitarma, in turn exemplified the theme of the conference, noting that “nobody understands what shipowners do”.
Despite the fact that they play a key role in the country’s economy, both the government and the public are disinterested in the role of the maritime economy. The sea remains something unknown; an alienating picture considering that Italy is one of the countries with the highest percentage of coastline in proportion to the extension of its perimeter.
Massimo Deandreis, General Manager of Srm, examined the general situation of exports, between ups and downs. China, despite the sharp slowdown in the maritime Silk Road, has nevertheless seen the growth of the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) giant. The Coronavirus emergency has accelerated changes already underway, especially in China where the economy is no longer “single-engine”, it will no longer be based solely on exports, but will seek to have more “engines” of the country, more strengths (e.g. tourism).
Deandreis also noted that “the land route of the Silk Road has not only failed to hold back, but has had record growth figures. July 2020 was the third consecutive month in which the threshold of a thousand trains per month between China and Europe was exceeded”. These are impressive figures, although still below the potential of the sea routes. However, they highlight a changing scenario, with a “regionalisation of globalisation” and a proliferation of “north-south routes”.
Nicolò Carnimeo, Associate Professor of Navigation Law at the Aldo Moro University of Bari, dealt with the topic of piracy updated to the 21st century: it never really disappeared, linked to the lack of state power both in Nigeria, with the Gulf of Aden, and in the Strait of Malacca. There is a petro-piracy caused by the misery of large sections of the local population, unable to continue traditional fishing activities due to the poisoning of the seas and oil interests.
D’Agostino: “It is wrong to underestimate the world of transportation”.
In this framework dominated by military and political interests, the voice of the President of the Eastern Adriatic Sea Port System Authority, Zeno D’Agostino, swam against the tide. A robust intervention that outlined the situation seen from the eyes of those who work with the Port every day; it was reiterated in this regard what role economic interests play. And how in this field it is good not to underestimate the geographical role of maritime routes and the economic role of the simple motive for the profit of the logistics companies, regardless of their nationality.
A sensation, for those who attended the conference, to return “with their feet on the ground” to the concrete reality of porters & crane operators, warehouses & docks.
Zeno D’Agostino observed that it is now impossible to separate “the commercial dimension from the US-China duel”.
Yet the role of the “world of transportation” should not be underestimated.
“It is clear,” D’Agostino began, “that geopolitics plays an ever-increasing role in global investment; however, the reasoning we have seen, especially with reference to the distribution of maritime routes worldwide, has little to do with geopolitics, albeit with the notable exception of the tariff war. The drop in traffic on the transpacific route is clearly caused by the trade wars of the two great blocks”.
“Other elements, however, are not! – warned the President of the Authority – They are instead closely linked to the role of the pandemic; think of the Cape of Good Hope and the collapse in the price of a barrel of oil. The current economic crisis leads to ships with empty containers, so the speed of transport can be slowed down. And the TEUs mentioned referring to ports, including Trieste, are full or empty? This makes a big difference, especially in terms of economic trends…”.
According to D’Agostino we are still a long way from announcing the death of the globalised world, indeed: “The regionalised route is the last mile of a great global route; therefore it is not true that we are heading for a regional “only” economy. It is thanks to the port of Piraeus, which became operational with the new management in 2013, that the centre of gravity of traffic has shifted in favour of the Mediterranean and Italy”.
Looking closely at the business that is being signed between the commercial companies and the ports of Europe, D’Agostino observed how the economic motive remains fundamental, beyond any political manoeuvres:
“I have not yet seen a Chinese, rather than a German, an American, an Arab coming to the Port and telling me that, when confronted with a series of numbers that do not stand up, or with a business that cannot work, that he wants to invest anyway.
This is the picture that can be contrasted between the economic-transport vision and the geopolitical one. If the goal was just to put a flag in the port, then the deal would have gone ahead anyway”.
“Frankly, however,” noted D’Agostino, “I have not yet seen any Chinese who does not pay attention to details, who neglect the economic aspect. Giorgio Cuscito pointed out the Chinese flags on the Italian ports; well, then it must also be said that there are many flags that have gone away. In Naples, for example.
And there the flag disappeared not for geopolitical reasons, but because economically the agreement did not work. And the Chinese, beyond the political reasons, chose to leave, because they would not have gained from it. At the level also of the people involved in these dynamics, the transport and financial aspect remains fundamental”.
The Silk Road and the (strong) relations with France and Germany
Moreover, it is not only Italy that has relations with China; “the French in general – compared to the stereotype of the Germans as great allies of China – are equally linked to the People’s Republic”, D’Agostino pointed out.
Recalling that “In May this year, Golden Power performed an analysis on the acquisition by the China Merchants Ports (CMPort) of 10 container terminals owned by Cma Cgm; yet there was no debate, no geopolitical emphasis on the acquisition, no aversion from the United States itself”.
Germany and France are also NATO members, also formally pro-American; yet the agreements they are pursuing with China do not seem to arouse the clamour like the Italian one does.
“It is true – admitted the President, ironically – that we Italians have committed the original sin: in March 2019 we signed this Memorandum for the Silk Road which Germany and France did not sign. However, concretely, the Germans and even more so the French have signed far more demanding agreements”.
On the subject of the “excommunication” of the United States against the Chinese CCCC (China Communication Construction Company), with which Trieste was to collaborate on the Silk Road, D’Agostino noted the impracticability of this ban, noting that it was a decision made in relation to the USA.
“The CCCC – noted D’Agostino – is one of the largest manufacturers of terminal cranes in the world with its subsidiary ZPMC (Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company Limited)”.
Cranes, it should be noted, used for “3/4 in American ports”.
“I remember a scene at the port of Miami, at the time of the Obama presidency, where attempts were made to hide the fact that the brand name of the cranes used was that of the Chinese ZPMC. Proof of the US-China interconnection, as well as the antagonistic relations already prior to Donald J. Trump’s presidency”.
However, there is another factor, noted D’Agostino, which is still neglected when discussing Trieste and its port. That is, the role of those who work in the port, struggling to improve transport and logistics. It is particularly debasing, noted D’Agostino, that all credit is attributed only to external, “exogenous” causes.
Precisely because the Port has played an active role, it has been able to show that it moves independently, to look for investors and capital, which in turn has mobilised this strong (also) geopolitical interest.
“Trump – observed D’Agostino – has “noticed” the Port of Trieste, because we have rationalised the railway manoeuvre of the Julian port. The competitive capacity at a transport and economic level has been the basis for becoming a geopolitical subject”.
Even, according to the president, “we couldn’t care less about the one belt one road provocatively, we can go ahead with our strengths”.
In short, the potential of the Port is certainly not exhausted by the “Chinese” Silk Road, nor by the Memorandum of 2019; Trieste has long been able to create and seize precious opportunities thanks to its own “endogenous” factors.