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Five Star founder calls to “open” strategic seaport to China

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo asked MPs to make the Taranto port of call (which is sensitive for NATO activities) a junction of the maritime Belt and Road Initiative. The government rejected the idea, and it could end up using its special powers down the line – as Chinese companies might be looking to other assets

Some love stories never end. Beppe Grillo, founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and longtime China sympathizer, believes that Beijing’s sights on the Taranto seaport – where NATO’s Southern Maritime Command is located – are “an opportunity” not to be missed, capable of bringing Italy into the maritime side of the Belt and Road Initiative.

  • While in Rome for a show, Mr Grillo met the M5S’ MPs in the Chamber of Deputies. And according to La Stampa, he asked them to “open the port of Taranto to large Chinese merchant ships,” noting it’s the only terminal in the area where such vessels may enter.
  • The comedian had previously appeared at the inauguration of the new Chinese Ambassador to Rome, Jia Guide. He brought a balloon, which he joked was “hovering above [his] house” and that he had to “return it to its rightful owner.”
    • That’s a derisory reference to the Chinese spy balloon shot down by Washington while floating in the United States airspace.

Long time in the making. After his party, which was the main force in Giuseppe Conte’s government, signed the 2019 Belt and Road Memorandum of Understanding with China, Mr Grillo called for the ports of Taranto and Gioia Tauro (which is also crucial for the Italian Navy and NATO’s activities) to become Silk Road hubs.

  • After the MoU was signed, Mario Turco – then undersecretary to the Prime Minister’s Office, now deputy president of the M5S, which is led by Mr Conte himself – announced that Ferretti Group, controlled by the Chinese State-owned company Weichai, would establish a new production plant for yacht hulls in the Taranto seaport.

Still a “no” from the government. China is looking for a new maritime outlet in southern Europe, an alternative port to Piraeus, acquired during the Greek crisis by the state-owned giant Cosco (in Italy, such an operation is impossible as ports are owned by the State). That’s why it’s looking at Taranto with interest. But the Italian government “is against such a solution,” assured Edoardo Rixi, undersecretary to the PM’s office and responsible for Infrastructure, speaking to La Stampa.

And the list goes on. Another entity, Progetto Internazionale 39 – a special purpose company controlled by Sergio Gao Shuai, a delegate of the Chinese government – is looking to acquire an area within the port’s logistics platform, put on the market by the Port System Authority of the Ionian Sea.

  • Government intervention cannot be ruled out: the State’s Golden Power regulation can also apply in the case of a logistics platform connected to an infrastructure of national importance, such as the Taranto seaport.
  • Still, the aims of Chinese companies might go beyond: such as a greentech-related notice, issued by the Port Authority, to enhance the areas not used for commercial purposes to build a large PV plant with EU money.

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