In recent months, there has been growing concern on several fronts over the economic and political influence of China in European ports.

The debate has been revived, not least because of COSCO’s bid to buy 35 percent of Tollerort Terminal (CTT), a small container terminal in Hamburg.

According to a report by the consultancy firm McKinsey, between 2021 and 2022, Chinese investment in airport infrastructure increased by more than 50 percent. Also in 2022, the Asian giant became the largest foreign investor in port infrastructure in Europe.

To date, COSCO has operations in seven European countries, including Italy.

The reasons behind China’s expansion

The consolidation of the Chinese presence in European ports has various objectives. Firstly, the intention to consolidate its global position as an economic power.

According to the latest report issued by Alphaliner, by the end of August, Chinese port operators had made investments in as many as 31 container terminals in Europe and the Mediterranean. These are strategic ports, located, for example, in Greece, Belgium and Vado Ligure, Italy.

China is the EU’s largest trading partner; expanding its logistical position in specific areas can only simplify trade and reduce transport costs, putting the Asian giant in an advantageous position for demanding—and obtaining—more favourable trade conditions in negotiations.

Not only that: investing in port infrastructure could give the country access to new markets.

Countermeasures by certain countries

Some countries—such as Japan, Australia, the United States—and even the European Union are seeking to adopt a series of countermeasures to prevent possible risks from China’s expansion. One example is the stricter controls on foreign investment in infrastructure, also adopted by the Italian government in 2022. Or the counter investments by Member States in port and logistics infrastructure to reduce their dependence on China.

It is not possible at present to be sure whether countermeasures are really necessary or efficient. We will just have to wait and see how events develop politically and economically.

One thing remains certain, however: China remains the EU’s largest trading partner and also the third largest importer.