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How a Chinese bid for a strategic Italian seaport failed

Taranto seaport
Yacht maker Ferretti Group, controlled by Chinese state-owned giant Weichai, has withdrawn from bidding for a site in the Taranto seaport. The decision comes amid Rome’s wider retreat from China and its Belt and Road outreach, and it’s only the latest signal of the ongoing shift

Ferretti’s out of the Taranto race. The luxury yacht maker, controlled by Chinese State-owned titan Weichai, has withdrawn from the tender to revamp and reindustrialize the former Belleli Yard site in the city’s seaport area – a crucial hub for the activities of the Italian Navy and NATO. The planned investment entailed €200 million and 200 jobs, but came with the potential risk associated with letting a Beijing-backed company operate in a highly strategic area.

What they said. “Despite the efforts made by the institutions, the delays accumulated in the long approval and implementation process have forced the group to abandon the project,” reads a company note in Italian. “Over the years, the necessary investments have increased and public contributions to the program have decreased, making its outcome uncertain and excessively burdensome for the company.” 

  • The tender’s operator, Sogesid, hit back at Ferretti’s claim. CEO Errico Stravato claimed it had “always worked to ensure compliance with regulations and has provided rapid feedback to the parties involved to verify and obtain authorizations and other necessary acts.”
  • On his part, Apulia Region President Michele Emiliano vowed to look deeper into the issue. And Sergio Prete, head of the Ionian Sea Port Authority, said he would try to salvage the deal.
    • Mr Prete is the only Italian to sit among the Shanghai International Shipping Institute experts.

It’s political, too. The termination was communicated “in a suitable time frame to minimize the exposure of the Port System Authority with respect to the not-yet-completed public tender,” reads the statement. Except the stop was still quite sudden, and rather unexpected, considering the political backing enjoyed by such China-linked enterprises on behalf of the Five Star Movement (M5S).

  • The party had supported Ferretti’s project since 2019, back when it was the government’s biggest partner, and it had been the driving force behind the signing of the Belt and Road Initiative Memorandum of Understanding with Beijing under then-Prime Minister (and now party head) Giuseppe Conte.
    • Just a few months ago, M5S founder Beppe Grillo was calling on the government to “open” the Taranto seaport to China and turn it into a pivot of the BRI along with that of Gioia Tauro.
  • After Ferretti’s announcement, the M5S accused the former Draghi government (which it had supported) and the current Meloni executive for the “climate of uncertainty” they had caused.

Turning tides. The current government – headed by PM Giorgia Meloni – decided in December to withdraw from the MoU. The decision was the natural consequence of Italy’s strategic realignment with the Euro-Atlantic field, along with deeper economic security considerations that have brought operators across the Italian economy to reassess its China ties.

  • For instance, what appeared to be a Beijing-linked special-purpose vehicle was recently dissolved after its failed attempt to acquire a logistics platform in the Taranto seaport.
  • Also, the very same Ferretti Group had to dilute its Chinese ownership to attain dual listing at the Milan stock exchange in June.

It’s not a decoupling, though. The BRI MoU exit was carefully managed by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and the executive to avoid an economic backlash and ensure that normal business with China would not suffer. On Friday, the latter announced that an Italy-China Business Forum will be held in Verona in early April. “It will serve to boost the strategic partnership with China,” he explained.

  • “You know we exited the [BRI MoU] without fuss because we could not share a political project that did not bring any benefit to our country. However, we continue to work from the strategic point of view,” remarked FM Tajani.

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